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Print Version

New Zealand Festival 2014
Written and performed by Aidan Dooley
Play on Words Theatre (Ireland)

at Soundings - Te Papa, Wellington
From 6 Mar 2014 to 9 Mar 2014
[2hrs including interval]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 7 Mar 2014

Sure we've all heard of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Most New Zealanders have also heard of Shackleton's Kiwi Captain of the Endurance and brilliant navigator Frank Worsley.

My mother treasured her mother's autograph book in which – in 1916, just back from the adventure that stunned the world – Frank signed himself ‘Wuzzles'. (He had grown up with Mum's paternal granny in Akaroa and always used to visit when in Wellington). And Shackleton penned these lines by Canadian poet Robert Service:
You may recall that sweep of savage splendour,
That land that measures each man at his worth,
And feel in memory, half fierce, half tender,
The brotherhood of men that know the South.

Nothing from Tom Crean, though. Tom who? He had been to the planet's largest continent more often than Scott, Shackleton and Worsley yet he was not even world famous in his native Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland.

According to his biographer Michael Smith[i], the “unsung hero” was a very modest man who never kept a diary nor spoke of his Antarctic experiences once he got back to Kerry, although that might have been to protect himself and his family from Irish Republican extremists who wouldn't take kindly to his service with the British Royal Navy. When he retired from the Navy in 1920, however, he bought a pub in Annascaul and called it The South Pole Inn.

Dubbed The Irish Giant, sailor Tom Crean survived three Antarctic expeditions – two with Scott (sailing on the Discovery, 1901-04; the Terra Nova, 1910-13) and one with Shackleton (the Endurance, 1914-16) – but he never did make it to the South Pole. Not until he owned it, that is.

Writer / actor Aidan Dooley, who may or may not be his own director as well (yet again there was no programme at Soundings, just a few copies of a media release), first played Tom Crean in a 15-minute piece to go with an exhibition at London's National Maritime Museum in 2001. Two years later he premiered his full-length play at the Medway Fuse Festival and it has been in his repertoire and on the road for the 11 years since. There is no record of whether Smith's book, published in 2000, was a key reference.

Given the subject's reticence, Dooley's Tom – of average stature it must be noted – must have kissed the Blarney Stone to achieve the eloquence that pours out of him, at great speed sometimes, in a rich Irish accent, over two potent hours bisected by an interval. It's a beautifully modulated telling of his tales, in the assumed persona of Crean, full of mischievous wit and wry perceptions.

The setting (designer unknown) is an island – a floe? – of calico, covering boxes and hiding the odd prop. Above, an antique sled hangs in limbo and a full moon glows in the dim distance. It is into this small world that Dooley beckons us, to reveal the enormous story of Tom Crean.

He doesn't play multiple roles but tells his tales with ebullient relish, as if we are all supping Guinness in his pub. A great deal of information about such things as what they wore and why, and what the pitfalls for the uninitiated were, is integrated into the show without the slightest hint of it being a lecture. As well as being fascinating in itself, such information enriches our empathetic sharing of his experiences.

The first half covers the Scott expeditions. Given he's survived to tell the tale, it's no spoiler to mention that Tom “you've got a bad cough there” Crean was not one of the chosen few to make the final(fatal) trek to the pole. What is new to most of us is the extraordinary drama of his return, with two others, to the previous hut. The first-hand account of returning to find the bodies in the now famous Scott hut paints a vivid picture.

The second part is devoted to the also ill-fated Shackleton expedition, where the magnificently build Norwegian ship Endurance became stuck in frozen sea ice which dragged it 800 miles off course. Each stage is richly evoked, not least when the ship is crushed in a three-way meeting of ice floes, leaving all 28 men stranded on the still-drifting ice for months, sustained by a diet of seal and penguin – until splitting ice forces them into lifeboats now able to float.

Having made landfall at the only narrow beach on precipitous and inhospitable Elephant Island, Shackleton selected five, including Crean, to join his attempt to row to South Georgia to summon help. The drama of preparing for that voyage, let alone all that followed, makes for riveting theatre. These intrepid sailors, who had been in no position to go on training runs or fitness camps, suddenly find themselves having to mountaineers as well!

Spoiler alert: everyone survived. What it took to achieve this – by comparison with the rescue of 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy last January – is almost inconceivable. What Aidan Dooley does is make it real and credible by bringing it into very human perspective. There is a spirit in his highly engaging performance that means we ‘get it' even if we don't understand every heavily accented word. (Mind you if we did, we would be more forthcoming when he asks direct questions for us to answer or otherwise invites our vocal participation.)

For all the simplicity of its presentation, Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer is epic theatre, attesting to the power of live performance, audience imagination and human empathy. 

[i] Smith, Michael (2000). An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor. London: Headline Book Publishing. ISBN 0-7472-5357-9.
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