SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON, the famous polar explorer, was brought up in the Church of Ireland, in County Kildare, by a devout family. When he grew up, he subscribed, seemingly, to no particular denomination. Yet his religious feeling was strong, and his sense of the spiritual intense. As his friend and biographer suggested, he had a personal faith: “His God was the God of nature, of the stars, the seas, the open spaces.”
He believed passionately in the persistence of the human spirit, and of a world progressing towards goodness. “He never doubted there was a higher power than our own, not an omnipresent Almighty, but a great universal order.” On his headstone, when he died, aged only 47, were inscribed the words “Entered Life Eternal”.
Shackleton’s story has been told in film, and the occasional play, but also in an opera, designed for children, but apt for adults also, and staged by the inspired and creative company English Touring Opera. First performed in 2015, the opera, Shackleton’s Cat, has been revived this spring.
I saw the performance at the Albany Theatre, Deptford. It involved four singers, a fifth speaking role, and three instrumentalists delivering a superbly contrived (and, for children, enticing) score by Russell Hepplewhite. The work focuses on the story of the Endurance, the ship that would become trapped in the polar ice, forcing its crew to flee for their lives to a remote island, from which Shackleton miraculously rescued them.
Before they set out, Shackleton (Ed Ballard) was given two copies of the Bible by Queen Alexandra, one for himself and one for his crew, inscribed “May the Lord help you do your deeds and guide you. . . May you see the works of the Lord and all the wonders of the deep.”
In the many readings aboard the icebound ship, verses from the Bible played an important part and were a source of inspiration, not least to Shackleton himself. Regretfully jettisoned to save weight, the Bible was retrieved and smuggled home by a religious Scottish seaman, Thomas McLeod, and thus preserved; Shackleton had torn out and kept the Queen’s dedication.
The opera’s story, fuelled by a very accurate and vivid text by the director Tim Yealland, begins then, and gives a shivering version of the beleaguered crew, the long days of boredom, the horrendous escape from the ice, and the hair-raising tale of Shackleton’s journey aboard the lifeboat James Caird, and crossing of the uncharted steep mountains of South Georgia, the island destination that they reached, against all odds, thanks to the brilliant navigation of Frank Worsley (Jamie Rock).
Shackleton believed fervently in the power of Providence, and often quoted scriptural texts to the crew: hence, to a degree, his religious leaning became clear: “I pray God I can manage to get the whole party to civilisation.”
But he also tore out a passage from the book of Job: “Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who has gendered it?” The ice, depicted by glowing sheeting, naturally plays a key part in the opera. Burberry-like khaki costumes by the designer, Jude Munden, convey the feel of rough, exhausted seafarers and perishing cold.
The importance of Shackleton’s loyal second-in-command, Frank Wild (Dominic Walsh, a beautifully expressive tenor), is finely exemplified. When they flee the breaking ice floes and make a freezing escape to desolate Elephant Island, one of the crew, Perce Blackborow (Matthew Bosley), has three toes amputated: a grim detail, but very amusingly told.
Shackleton’s marked spiritual sense and trust in Providence can never have been greater than on the 800-mile boat journey seeking help, and the dangerous crossing of the mountains. Looking back on the miraculous transit, so nearly a disaster, Shackleton uses markedly spiritual language. He believed unfailingly in an intangible guiding force.
Indeed, all three men believed that a protecting fourth person was walking alongside them, a mystical notion that later inspired T. S. Eliot. Ed Ballard’s commanding Shackleton, a forceful and yet benevolent leader, manfully led both the boat journey and the near-suicidal mountain crossing.
The way the boat (a vivid miniature model) bravely battles the waves, and the clever way the trio are depicted here (a model also) sliding down a thousand feet, had the watching children agog. Indeed, the mountains themselves were ingeniously evoked: glowing white sheeting aided by artful lighting can be surprisingly atmospheric.
The cat was not Shackleton’s, but the beloved companion of “Chips” McNish, the dour ship’s carpenter, upon whom all their lives depended. When his cat (here lifelike, furry, and characterful) is inevitably put down, he explodes at Shackleton. Their confrontation, a highlight, draws an impressive performance from Andrew Glover as McNish.
The music is for keyboard (Hannah Quinn), percussion (Jonny Raper), and French horn (Jonathan Hassan). Each is a glittering performer, and Hepplewhite’s score that is magical, artful, and electrifying, and evokes the providential also. Together with the polished acting, he makes this show glisten.