In recent times Cambridge has seen a fair flurry of events to mark the centenary of Scott’s last expedition to the South Pole; the most recent, a production of Ted Tally’s play Terra Nova, staged at the ADC theatre.
Named in honour of Scott’s ship, Terra Nova is a mesmerising free-form drama which takes much of its material from the diaries and letters found in Scott’s tent. This is inventively woven together with re-imagined encounters between Scott and his young wife, and between Scott and his Norwegian competitor, Roald Amundsen. In reality Scott never met the latter; but he knew what Amundsen represented, and Terra Nova uses the Norwegian as a sounding board for Scott’s own delusions and fears. As a study of heroism in the face of failure it is tremendously effective.
The curtain rises to the shrill keening of the Antarctic wind, and for a moment we are left alone with some sepia photos of the Terra Nova marooned in the ice. Her gaunt masts and rigging stand out in suitably menacing fashion against the white sky. From there we are flung straight into the heart of the adventure: Scott and his four companions are inching their way towards the Pole. In a rapid series of asides we see each man battling his own demons: Lawrence Oates, unreconstructed officer material, whose iron self-discipline drives him to bully anyone he sees as lacking; Henry Bowers, overawed by the vast emptiness around him; and Edgar Evans, taunted by his superiors and crippled by injury.
Scott himself (Martin Woodruff) cuts a lonely, rather pitiable figure, driven to the Antarctic by a complicated sense of destiny and duty which is entirely at odds with his rather diffident personality; ultimately, we learn, it is the fear of a wasted life which sends Scott back to the Pole, against the wishes of his wife and his own better judgement. Even in 1912 Scott was an old-fashioned sort of gentleman, or at least aspired to be so; through a series of tightly-controlled set-pieces we see these ideals being probed, tested and mocked, but somehow they hold out.
Amundsen, played with bristling confidence by Julian Cooper, haunts Scott to the very end, goading him over his ideals and questioning whether it is duty or ambition which drives the Englishman. There is something of Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali (Lawrence of Arabia) about Cooper’s performance, amplified when he yells ‘English!’ at Scott before delivering yet another stinging rebuke. The point Amundsen hammers home is that the Antarctic is no place for sporting behaviour or for a crisis of conscience – and by the time Scott is alone with his perished companions, we can’t help but agree.
Surprisingly Amundsen is also responsible for one of the most beautiful images in the play, as he foresees Scott’s frozen body being released from the ice into the sea centuries hence, floating north into the sun like a Viking prince.
As the defeated men walk back from the Pole, still dragging cameras and geological samples, it dawns on them one by one that they are going to die. They respond in different ways: Oates redeems himself with a famous act of self-sacrifice, although one senses it is done more out of duty than compassion; Evans goes mad; Bowers remains plucky, even cheerful, to the very end. And at the last we have Scott alone in the tent, a small pool of light and warmth adrift in the storm, struggling to write down his final thoughts, to justify his actions to the world and to himself.
Bawds Theatre Company are to be congratulated on this very capable production. The story penetrates to the very heart of the Scott legend, and leaves us with the impression that, even in the face of such suffering, this was not a wasted journey. When Scott’s tent was finally located by a rescue party months later, a rough cross was erected on the ice to mark the spot where the expedition met its end. The epitaph read ‘To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield’ – an ideal, Terra Nova seems to conclude, which is not entirely without merit.
Terra Nova was staged at the ADC Theatre April 24th - 28th 2012