THE FINAL JOURNEY OF EDWARD WILSON
Everyman Theatre Studio, Cheltenham, Wednesday 21st March, 2012
A hundred years ago a man from Cheltenham died in a tent in the Antarctic. This one-act play tells his story. The man was Edward Wilson, known for some reason to other members of his expeditions as “Uncle Bill” and some of those other men were Scott, Oates and Shackleton…
The play begins with a mysterious figure approaching a tent in the snowy wastelands. Wilson emerges from under canvas, recognises the figure and realises it must be “time”. In a series of flashbacks, some of them no longer than a line or two of dialogue, Wilson’s life flashes before our eyes. He narrates his story, not chronologically, but out of sequence, as things occur to him. It is this stream-of-consciousness approach that raises this two-hander above most plays of this type.
Wilson embodies the Explorer, the indomitable spirit of the late Victorian/early Edwardian eras, driven by ambition and will to expand the frontiers of knowledge and experience. His “come on, chaps”, stiff upper lip, never-say-die enthusiasm never leaves him throughout his life. From befriending a squirrel, to dissecting grouse to diagnose a mysterious disease, to collecting birds’ eggs as a child, to pronouncing his marriage vows, to sketching mosquitoes in Norway, to eating roast penguin… Wilson is an unstoppable force, the personification of human ambition. Along the way there are moments of raw emotion, stabbing at him and at us, and these accumulate as he realises the End is nigh and he will never see his wife or father again. But this is not a play of mawkish sentiment, neither is it all gung ho like a boys’ adventure story or a ripping yarn. It is a very informative, highly effective and ultimately moving portrayal that goes beyond the biography of an individual to touch on themes such as the connection with nature that we have lost and the courage and resilience of the human spirit. It is a celebration not only of Cheltenham’s famous son but also of the better aspects of our species.
As Uncle Bill, Matthew Medhurst (himself a Cheltenham lad) portrays the bright-eyed enthusiasm and spirit of enquiry from boyhood to manhood and back again, and not necessarily in that order. All the other characters, including the squirrel and a mosquito, are presented by Dan Maxwell, who is able to switch characterisation merely by taking off his hat and we believe he is someone entirely different: the bumbling professors who seek to exploit Wilson’s artistic talent, Scott officiously interviewing him for the ill-fated expedition, Wilson’s father watching his boy paint and draw with moist-eyed affection and, particularly, Captain Oates and his noble sacrifice. It is revealed that it is the ghost of Oates who has come to fetch Wilson to cross that final frontier – it is a conceit, a framing device to hold the whole together, at odds perhaps with the scientific endeavours of the man but in keeping with his spiritual beliefs. This seeming contradiction is touched on within the play: Wilson seeks to prove Darwin right but sees the hand of God at work in all things. He isn’t really challenged on this but that is forgivable considering how much writer John Bassett crams into his one-act play.
Andy Burton’s direction keeps the action flowing. The pace doesn’t flag, making for a very tight and rewarding hour of drama. The sled, the tent, and other props all look authentic but they are also employed imaginatively and symbolically: a fur hat becomes the squirrel scampering along a branch. Wilson’s life is recreated using those objects he had with him at the end of it.
Both performers are engaging, working flat out to keep us absorbed and involved. A co-production between the Everyman Theatre and Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, this play deserves a longer run and a wider audience, not just because Wilson deserves celebration but because this is a cracking piece of work.