At the time the Endurance was launched on December 17, 1912, the barquentine was perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built. Designed by Ole Aanderud Larsen and originally christened Polaris, the ship was built for the purpose of polar cruises for tourists to hunt polar bears. As fate would have it, the original owners met financial problems and sold the ship to the Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton for approximately $67,000. After the purchase, Shackleton rechristened the ship the Endurance after his family’s motto, “Fortitudine vincimus” (By endurance we conquer).
The ship’s ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition is the inspiration for the puppet-theater company Phantom Limb’s new show, 69°S., named after the latitude at which Shackleton’s ship sank during the 1914 Endurance expedition. Part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2011 Next Wave Festival, marionette maker and company Erik Sanko and set designer Jessica Grindstaff bring the Shackleton expedition’s two-year journey of survival in the harshest climate on earth stunningly to life.
Opening on a stark white stage, the Antarctic climate is conjured as three mounds of white Tyvek cloth grow into giant glaciers. Six white-robed puppeteers walk onto the stage on stilts manipulating the three-foot-tall marionettes that represent the Arctic explorers. While some Shackleton knowledge is necessary to catch some of the narrative’s nuances, the show’s slow, gentle movements and Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s astral video projections (drawn from archival photographs of the real-life events), alongside Sanko’s clangorous score—performed live by Skeleton Key with the Kronos Quartet’s recorded accompaniment—emulate the desolate, fragile emotions of when man vis a vis Mother Nature.
The “series of dynamic tableau vivants” doesn’t so much spell out what is happening on stage, but instead welcomes the audience to feel it and respond to it. In Phantom Limb’s notes, the creators mention the influence of T.S. Eliot, the “idea of juxtaposing clear images beside one another to express multiple perspectives of a single event” to allow Sanko and Grindstaff to create the show’s context while “inviting the audience to have their own personal experience.” There is an otherworldly quality emulated as the puppets walk to the front of the stage as the music surges and a tribal drum beat dominates the scene. When the puppets stare off into the distance you can’t help but think about how daunting it must have been not to go crazy from the mere thought of existing.
However, the men are not alone, as the show constantly refers to the presence of a third person. As Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, a passage that refers to the last leg of the Shackleton expedition:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count,there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
Death is always around the corner (somewhat comically depicted by a black skeleton attached to the front of one of the performer’s costume); however, the puppeteers—in their white robes—are, you could say, guardian angels watching over the men, helping them up when they have fallen. As Sir Shackleton commented years after the expedition, “When I look back at those days, I have no doubt that divine providence guided us… It seemed to me often that we were not alone.” A little literal, to say the least, but the correlation produces some beautiful moments, including an awe-inspiring sequence of the explorers trudging through the Arctic terrain as the puppeteers, positioned in a circle, work together to manipulate the puppets around them, delicately handing each puppet to the next person. The moment is tense, precious, and ethereal, a little bit like the story—and production—being told.
Photograph by Frank Hurley.