LONDON A Joseph Winogradoff presentation of a play in two acts by David Young. Directed by Richard Rose. Sets and costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Christopher Shutt. Opened, reviewed Oct. 9, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
Campbell Mark Bazeley Priestley Stephen Boxer Abbott Darrell D'Silva Dickason Eddie Marsan Browning Jason Flemyng Levick Ronan Vibert
These are tough times for straight theater, or so the thinking goes, but the West End isn't helping its cause by premiering the second play in as many weeks that -- in qualitative terms -- proves tough to take. "Antarctica" never devolves into a kitsch classic on the order of "Mahler's Conversion," a loopy bioplay so hamfisted that at times it's almost fun. No, David Young's script -- an apparent success in his native Canada -- turns a potentially gripping scenario of a sextet in crisis into a florid, pretentious evening that is as oppressive to listen to as it often is to look at. The overbearing visual nature of the piece (the self-conscious lighting is by one Bruno Poefi) is at least forgivable: Extraordinary climes -- a bone-chilling icy wasteland on the way to the South Pole -- demand a singular look to match, which Rae Smith's busily levitaring set goes to great pains to provide. But it's not just the story that, in the play's own words, "howls like a gale, inundat(ing) and exhaust(ing) us." The same goes for writing so overripe that you begin searching the Savoy for the exit sign, or at least some of the melodramatic juice that Young is far too high-minded to provide.
"Antarctica" recalls countless better works, from "All Quiet on the Western Front" through last season's Donmar Warehouse entry "To the Green Fields Beyond." But while that Nick Hornby play had the good grace to wear its existential musings lightly, this one stumbles into one linguistic land mine after another, leaving an able cast as stranded as the characters they play.
Young's interest resides in the six men cut off from Captain Scott's celebrated 1912 expedition to the South Pole, itself the subject of a widely produced Ted Tally drama called "Terra Nova." There's not much, sadly, that's new about the thematic terrain here. The pbsh face off against the proles, everyone gets a defining characteristic or two and revelations are rationed as carefully as the group's grimly guarded food. Lest there be any suspense about the outcome, the play's flashback structure demolishes that, with Priesfiey (a quavery Stephen Boxer) recalling events from a later life that finds him no less tearful now than he was then.
As is often the case in such circumstances, the privileged classes come off least well. Playing the most fastidiously spoken members of a motley crew, neither Mark Bazeley nor Ronan Vibert can talk of "the final nothing" without raising suspicions that the Edwardian-era mock-Beckettisms amount to self-parody. Dominating the opposite end of the spectrum is Darrell D'Silva's Abbott, the foul-mouthed, working-class provocateur who keeps breaching the invisible wall that Bazeley's infinitely patronizing leader Campbell has put up.
Richard Rose's production does everything short of putting wind machines under the seats to convey a sense that you are there, even if the men's assessment of their situation -- the living conditions, we hear, are "beyond description" -- would indicate such efforts are in vain.
The suggestion inevitably gets made that what we're watching is a world in miniature playing a risky waiting game with death. If that's the case, "Antarctica" isn't so much a victim of its own fruitiness as singularly poorly timed, since jittery auds wanting that sensation at the moment need only step outside.