Review: The Conquest of the South Pole (Everyman)

East German playwright Manfred Karge wrote The Conquest of the South Pole in the early 1980s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The play is a dark comedy about a group of friends who share a deep sense of aimlessness and disillusionment, a discontent that’s economic (they’re unemployed) as well as political. It’s been revived a few times since, and – so persistent has been the social malaise that continues to afflict much of the western world – has rarely lost its relevance.

What with Brexit, austerity and a general sense that rebellion against the status quo is in the air that’s certainly still the case now. Even so, the play’s a bold and perhaps surprising choice for the Everyman’s new repertory company. It’s not as accessible as their inaugural production, the more obviously crowd-pleasing Fiddler on the Roof (which was deservedly a great success). Manfred Karge’s anarchic, absurdist style may well be too weird and wacky for some. With enigmatic dialogue interrupted by the occasional song, his approach resembles a cross between Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht.

The first hint of what’s to come is the play’s strange title, which derives from its surreal plot. One of the friends, Slupianek, persuades the others to join him in a re-enactment of Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911 (the bit we British tend to remember about this trek across the Antarctic is of course that he beat Captain Scott to it). But rather than travel to the polar regions they’ll act out the heroic exploits of Amundsen’s team of explorers in the attic of one of their houses.

It’s a game, but one they take deadly seriously, seizing the opportunity to inject some meaning and purpose into their lives. They acquire (somewhat dishonestly) appropriate outdoor equipment, and white sheets on a washing line are used to represent icebergs and glaciers. As their make-believe journey progresses, we see the wit and imagination that the real world shamefully can find no use for. The exhilaration and solidarity the friends sometimes experience gives us a sense of hope, but pessimism and despair are never far away. As one of them caustically remarks, they ought perhaps to be re-enacting the expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, who got close to the Pole but had to turn back: ‘We do failures better’.

Inventive use is made of a circular set, and there are some nice effects, notably a climactic snow-filled final assault on the Pole. Karge’s script (translated by Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis) has a powerfully rhythmic energy, and the rapid interactions between the characters are expertly managed by the cast. Dean Nolan takes the central role, vividly capturing Slupianek’s powerful, inspirational personality, with its combustible mix of determination and anger. His three friends are also excellently played: George Caple as the indecisive Braukmann, Emily Hughes as Seiffert, who the others battle to lift out of suicidal depression, and Liam Tobin as the cheerfully pessimistic Buscher. And Laura Dos Santos is very convincing as Braukmann’s down to earth, long-suffering wife, who wishes they’d all just grow up (a sentiment you sensed one or two members of the audience might have shared). But the original trip to the Pole was of course a stupendous team effort, and the sense of a group of class actors bringing the best out of each other is very strong here.

The Conquest of the South Pole continues at the Everyman, Liverpool until Saturday 8 April (for more information, click HERE). Photos: Gary Calton