Surviving in the deep freeze
A new play dramatises the terrible choice between starvation and cannibalism
Tuesday 01 June 2004
How hungry do you have to be to eat another human being? That is the subject matter of a new play based on the true story of the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers in the 1840s.
How hungry do you have to be to eat another human being? That is the subject matter of a new play based on the true story of the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers in the 1840s. Angels among the Trees dramatises how the explorers made an ill-fated trek across the country in search of a better life in California, but became trapped in snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Of the 87 party members, only 42 survived.
The expedition followed a "short cut" described by the adventurer Landsford Hastings - who, it turned out, had never taken the route himself. Stranded in the snow, the group were forced into making what must be the hardest choice of all: should they starve, or should they eat their fellow traveller?
"I can't really think of anything harder to deal with," says Giles Croft, the artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse and the director of this epic production. "We are investigating quite difficult areas," he says. "There is a certain number of dead and desecrated bodies around the stage as the play moves along. What we are trying to judge is how far to go and at the same time keep the audience's sympathies. What you don't want to do is make people too upset or disgusted by what they are watching. It is quite a hard balancing act."
Turning the Playhouse stage into the Sierra Nevada mountain range was another difficult trick. This is the second time the set and costume designer Jamie Vartan has come up with a vast set for this stage - the 2000 production of Because It's There was another epic show, also written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Croft, about Irving and Mallory's mission to conquer Everest in 1924. It saw the actors climbing a transparent frame and abseiling from the auditorium balcony and lighting rig, and a mountain made out of Perspex.
Of the new show, Vartan says: "Their journey begins as they walk across the parched earth of Missouri - created by stained floorboards - as the group head west. It starts snowing as they reach the bottom of the Sierra Nevada range, and the actors drag white cloths under their feet while paper snow begins to fall."
A distant mountain peak is made of sculptured polystyrene, and a pine tree made from a telegraph pole sinks three metres in to the ground to give the illusion that the snow is 13ft deep. But the most dramatic effect is the blizzard. "We turn on the snow machine and wind machine, and as the actors walk huddled together the front of the stage opens up - with dramatic side lighting - to reveal the underworld of people where the snow has covered their cabins," Vartan says.
Croft adds: "One of the things that has always interested me is demonstrating that the theatre can take on large and ambitious stories in a very dramatic and surprising way. We don't do these things with lots of money, but people can be very inventive."
Nottingham Playhouse (0115-941 9419; www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk) Saturday to 19 June
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage