The Arts diary: Resurrecting Mallory

George Mallory. Picture: Getty
George Mallory. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

AS A GENERAL rule, you don’t hear of many plays about explorers.

The dramatic stories of people like Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone and Stanley have inspired countless books and stacks of films, but they rarely turn up at your local theatre, reimagined for Generation Xbox by a hip young playwright.

Partly, this is to do with the constraints of the medium. In a film you can actually show blizzards sweeping across the icy wastes of Antarctica and in a book you can conjure them up just as vividly in the minds of your readers, but on stage… well… there’s a limit to what you can achieve with a large fan, industrial quantities of cotton wool and a couple of cardboard penguins.

Having said that, there is one corner of the theatrical universe where explorers do get a look-in from time to time, and that’s the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Over the last few years we’ve had Aidan Dooley’s Fringe First-winning 2006 show Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer, comedian David O’Doherty’s somewhat less serious-minded Rory Sheridan’s Tales Of The Antarctica and Tim FitzHigham and Tiernan Douieb’s five-star family-friendly show The Adventurers Club – The Great Arctic Caper. Perhaps shows like these are able to thrive on the Fringe because the expectations of technical wizardry at the world’s biggest arts festival are uniquely low, allowing artists to focus on telling the story rather than fiddling about with the aforementioned mountains of cotton wool. Or perhaps it’s simply that the Fringe is now so big that, like a tropical rainforest, it can accommodate an almost infinite number of theatrical sub-species, including a few that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else.

Either way, it seems the Fringe may be about to see another addition to the obscure genre of explorer drama – a one-man show about the tragic mountaineer George Mallory, pictured. Highlands-based writer John D Burns is currently looking into the possibility of producing a play for 2014 based on Mallory’s life story, only with a twist: in Burn’s version, rather than perishing on Everest, Mallory survives.

“Imagine if Mallory had not died on the mountain,” says Burns, “if he had returned alone, Andrew Irvine [his climbing partner] having succumbed to altitude sickness on the descent. What would Mallory have become, what ghosts would have haunted him?”

Mallory and Irvine may or may not have been the first people to climb Everest, depending on who you talk to. The British pair were last seen alive on 8 June, 1924, on the north-east ridge of Everest, only a few hundred yards from the summit. Various clues suggest they may have made it all the way to the top: when Mallory’s body was found, a photograph of his wife, Ruth, which he had said he would leave at the summit was missing, and his goggles were in his pocket, suggesting he had taken them off for a descent in fading light.

When Sir Edmund Hillary, who made the first confirmed ascent of Everest in 1953, was asked for his view on the controversy, he replied: “I do not know whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit. What I do know is that Tenzing Norgay and I were the first to get to the top and back down to the bottom again.”

Burns has previous at the Fringe: in 2010 he wrote and performed a one-man play about the occultist Aleister Crowley. In his imagined version of the Mallory story, the mountaineer is knighted and hailed as a hero on his return to Britain, but, even at the age of 60, he is still haunted by his experiences on what he simply calls “the mountain” and is tortured by the thought that he led the less experienced Irvine to his death.

Plenty of potential for a storming monologue, in other words. In fact, Burns’s biggest challenge will probably be compressing everything into a one-hour Fringe show.

•  For more information on the play, visit


the first few of weeks of the year are traditionally a quiet time for the arts in Scotland: before Celtic Connections explodes into life into the middle of January, there doesn’t tend to be much going on apart from a few low-key gigs and straggling pantos.

The visual arts are by no means immune from this start-of-year sluggishness. Indeed, there has been a running joke on The Scotsman arts desk for at least a decade now about the impossibility of finding novel ways of covering the annual exhibition of Turner watercolours at the National Gallery of Scotland - often the only “new” show opening at an otherwise quiet time of year, but a regular fixture in the calendar for over a century and therefore already written about countless times before, and from almost every conceivable angle.

This year, however, things are different. There are so many shows opening in January it’s almost as if the visual arts sector has made a collective decision to start 2013 with all guns blazing.

Kicking off in the first week of the year alone, The Royal Scottish Academy has Derek Clarke at 100 – a major retrospective of a fascinating artist; the Scottish Gallery has an exhibition of works on paper by the legendary landscape painter and hugely influential Edinburgh College of Art lecturer William Gillies; and the Open Eye has works on paper by the great John Bellany.

Following hot on their heels are the Vikings at the National Museum of Scotland, featuring over 500 artefacts from the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, and the Picts at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, courtesy of Marianna Lines’s wall hangings based on the Pictish Stones. And then there’s Economy – a collaboration between the CCA in Glasgow and Stills in Edinburgh, in which a group of international artists from as far afield as India and the USA look at the often ugly relationship between money and power.

If you can’t find time to see the Turners once you’ve schlepped around that lot, don’t despair: they’ll be back in the same place in January 2014.