In Inexpressible Island, David Young’s hypnotic new play about Antarctic exploration, six men huddle for warmth in their filthy, tattered sleeping bags. They quarrel, sing hymns, write in their journals, count their diminishing supply of biscuits and, as the months wear on, sink gradually into a collective psychosis. The whole time, a fierce wind screams and moans, like some demented Valkyrie, outside the ice cave that shelters them.
Inexpressible Island—which runs at Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company until Oct. 18—is one of the most ambitious, original and perplexing dramas ever written by a Canadian. It is based on the true-life story of Lieut. Victor Campbell and his Royal Navy party, who were involved with Capt.
Robert Scott’s ill-fated 1912 expedition to the South Pole. While Scott and his men were struggling back from the Pole, Campbell and his group were enduring their own hell on the coast, where they were doing scientific work. When a Royal Navy ship failed to pick them up, they burrowed into the ice, and, in a monumental feat of endurance, survived the long, sunless, Antarctic winter.
Toronto-based Young, 51, first heard about the little-known episode from a mountaineering companion during a 1991 trip to the Yukon. What particularly intrigued him was how Campbell and his men reproduced the British class system inside their shelter. “Campbell decreed there was an invisible wall down the middle of the ice cave,” says Young. “That way the officers could be conversing in their ward room, while the men were grousing in the mess deck. And they could all pretend not to hear each other.”
Young—a novelist, screenwriter and author of the much-praised 1992 play Glenn, about pianist Glenn Gould—went on to read the expedition’s unpublished journals and notebooks in the Cambridge University archives. He recalls being tremendously moved by these “soot-stained, pencil-written pages. They were like religious relics to me.” But at the same time, he realized that the story he was looking for was not there.
The British explorers had kept a stiff upper lip, and little drama or conflict had made it into their reports. “That left me free,” says Young, “to invent what I needed.”
And invent he has. Whatever qualities Campbell (R. H. Thomson) actually possessed, in Inexpressible Island he becomes
an almost absurd embodiment of British imperial rule. He disciplines his men by such imaginative ploys as sending them into the freezing cold to practise their semaphore skills. Not surprisingly, the ordinary seamen rebel. Led by the rancorous Abbot (Wayne Best), they steal Campbell’s chronometer and read his private diary. At one point or another, the whole crew comes unstrung, until by the final act they are delivering monologues about the history of the 20th century and the future of the human race. By then, the original realism of the play has been superseded by something much more poetic and metaphorical.
If that sounds like too much, it sometimes is. But despite the script’s lapses into pomposity and obscurity, Inexpressible Island raises crucial questions about the importance of social structure (how much is enough?) and mankind’s place in the natural world. To paraphrase the play, the Antarctic winter has raped these men, though it remains uncertain whether their painful shift in consciousness will result in good or ill.
Meanwhile, the actors are nothing less than superb. And director Richard Rose has shaped the whole production into tableaus and images—cowled figures bent against the winds, soot-stained faces lifted in song— that will haunt the memory.
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