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Shackleton’s Carpenter

by on 13 September 2018

Gripped by Ice

Shackleton’s Carpenter

Hi-Lo Productions and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 15th September, then touring until 1st December

Review by Mark Aspen

A sudden startling crack, a flash of lightning and there, wild-eyed, was McNish!

We had listening to the BBC Home Service broadcasting between the wars, a clipped voice recounting the privations and the triumphs of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1914-1916, in the ship aptly named Endurance. Then, from the comfort of the OSO Arts Centre, the startled audience were propelled into the reality of remote, barren and brutal Antarctica.

Thus was the introduction to Shackleton’s Carpenter, a most remarkable and outstanding piece of theatre, opening in Barnes as part of a national tour.

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Shackleton’s Carpenter tells the true story of Harry McNish, Shackleton’s shipwright, who was an extraordinarily gifted carpenter, and was with Shackleton all the way on what must be one of the most arduous voyage of survival ever undertaken.

In August 1914, Shackleton set off on his third trip to the Antarctic, planning to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. The following February, the ship became trapped in the frozen sea and gradually it was crushed by the pressure of the ice, leaving Shackleton and his crew no option but to abandon the ship to overwinter on the floating ice. Ten months later the Endurance sank and Shackleton and his twenty-seven-strong crew were marooned. When spring came, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching the inhospitable Elephant Island.

Shackleton with five of the crew set off from Elephant Island in the lifeboat James Caird to seek help to rescue the crew. They endued a journey of 800 miles in the worst seas known to man, eventually reaching South Georgia, where they had to scale a mountain to get to their goal. McNish’s skills in building and adapting small boats, making sledges and shelters ensured that they all were saved. All the crew, including those who did not get on with him, recognised that it was his skills that saved their lives. However, McNish did not receive the prestigious Polar Medal that was awarded to most of the crew, and he died a broken man, destitute, and sleeping rough on the waterside in a wharf in New Zealand.

This is the scene set by tour director, Chris Barnes and his creative team, a wharf in Wellington in 1930. A simple silver and black set, a dinghy covered with a tarpaulin, a crate tells it all; and subtle lighting shifts the setting to the places in McNish’s mind, the places of his memories, dreams and overwhelmingly, his nightmares: his home, the sea, the Antarctic, the ether. The space is occupied by the mind of a single man, now wrecked in body, a vagrant suffering from physical injuries and illnesses, from alcoholism, and from what we would now call post-traumatic stress.


In Shackleton’s Carpenter, we relive the hardships of Harry McNish through a tour de force one-man performance by ex-RSC actor, Malcolm Rennie. Right from his startling first appearance, precipitated from his nightmare, we are riveted by Rennie’s McNish. Before his first words, we know already the character and the health of the man. We understand his predicament as his “tea” from the teapot proves to be cold water for his bottle of whisky. We feels the cold as he painfully dresses. We know his distress as his dreams crowd out sleep and he sees ghosts of his shipmates and overbearingly of “The Boss”, Sir Ernest Shackleton, leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

It was McNish’s relationship with Shackleton that caused most of his distress and he nursed a life-time resentment of The Boss, stemming largely from three sources. McNish’s advice on the sturdiness of the small boats for transporting across the ice by sledges was overruled by Shackleton. Shackleton ordered the shooting of the animals to conserve food, and this included McNish’s cat, Mrs Chippy, an act for which he could never forgive Shackleton. Thirdly, at the end of their ordeal, there, festering, was Shackleton’s failure to recommend McNish for the Polar Medal.

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The frustration of this resentment is searingly portrayed by Rennie, as is the deterioration of McNish’s mind, as he struggles with the burden of his past. His hands are rendered useless for his trade by frostbite, his suffering from piles is described in vivid detail, and his internal organs are failing through his rough sleeping and the alcohol, but it is his psychological state that is the most perilous to him. A delirium descends and he hallucinates about Shackleton, the horrors of the voyage, his varied relationships with his shipmates.

The complexity of the character of McNish is skilfully interpreted by Rennie, and we catch moments of love, beauty and tenderness. The death of each of his first two wives when he was only in his twenties, his regrets about his third wife, and his longing for the physical comfort of his last wife when he trapped in the barren ice are achingly acted out, as is his love for his tiny stepdaughter, whom he missed sorely when stranded in the Antarctic.

There is also beauty in the descriptions of Antarctica, the blackness of the long polar winter, the sounds of ice floes cracking, the smell of blubber, the taste of albatross flesh, the biting of the cold, and the clear aquamarine shimmer of ice and water in summer. The script is consummately written by playwright, Gail Louw, and much of the realisation of the production is credited to the late original director, Tony Milner, who died in 2005 and in whose memory the production is dedicated.

There are many themes in this play, loss, endurance, love, death, class friction, fellowship, resentment, leadership, charity. All are intertwined and all are examined in a complexity that is not black and white. It is a testimony both to the resilience of the human spirit and of its fragility.

The audience at Banes were totally transfixed, as will be audiences on its tour*. It is a gripping exposé, told with beauty, and exquisitely acted. Superb.

Mark Aspen
September 2018

Photography by Tamara Ustinov

* which includes the Barn Theatre at Walton at the end of September.

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