Everest Untold: Reaching a summit of his own

Taking his play about the Everest expedition around the country is the culmination of a dream for playwright Gareth Davies, writes Dionne Christian
Actors Stephen Lovatt (left) and Edwin Wright star in Everest Untold.
Actors Stephen Lovatt (left) and Edwin Wright star in Everest Untold.

Running an Auckland-based economic advisory consultancy and playwriting may not appear to have much in common but Gareth Davies says both involve creative thinking and words.

Davies, who has lived in New Zealand for 33 years but speaks with a Welsh accent as broad as his homeland's valleys, works by day with his wife, Nalayini, writing proposals and putting together teams to work all over the world. To date, they have organised around 160 assignments in 35 countries in Asia, the Pacific and, more recently, Africa.

"We have to think creatively in order to develop solutions for the types of issues we're dealing with," he says.

But, by night, Davies writes plays and has penned five scripts while Nalayini serves as producer, ensuring the works are staged. Now they're about to see Davies' most recent, Everest Untold, tour the length and breadth of the country after a successful 2014 season in Auckland.

It will go from our largest city to some of our smallest provincial towns. After a return season in Auckland, it heads to Wellington's Circa Theatre and then to the South Island from Christchurch to Twizel and everywhere in between. After the mainland, actors Stephen Lovatt and Edwin Wright and director Toby Leach return north so Everest Untold can play in Upper Hutt, Masterton, Whitianga and Hamilton.

From the glint in his eye, it is obvious Davies is thrilled - if somewhat humbled and surprised - that the story is doing what he wanted by reaching New Zealanders everywhere.

"People forget that climbing Everest was a real team effort and while Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top - and not to take anything away from that achievement - they were part of a much larger team that has been forgotten about," says Davies who, with Nalayini, has started Ffynroc Productions. "I thought it was a story people all over New Zealand should know about."

Through friends, the couple were put in touch with actors Jonny Brugh and Stephen Lovatt, who starred in the first season of Everest Untold.

"They were wonderful not just in the production, but in helping us to get to know how things work, because we're very new to all of this," says Nalayini.

That assistance extended to helping the couple organise the Nepal Memories fundraiser when that country was devastated by last year's earthquake. Six actors: Peter Elliott, Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Oliver Driver, George Henare, Michael Hurst and Lovatt, read favourite extracts from the autobiographies of the 1953 Everest Expedition team and, as part of last year's Auckland Writers Festival programme, raised $13,000 in one night.

Davies, who visited Nepal in the early 1990s and met Sir Ed, says he'd always been interested in the expedition and enchanted by Nepal. His previous plays, with names like The Good Socialist and The Reluctant Revolutionary, focused on political themes and were performed at the Hay Festival in the UK.

"I was born in Wales but I've been here for 33 years now, so I consider myself a New Zealander. I thought I should write something about this country," he says.

It also plays into his longstanding fascination with the Everest ascent, which culminated on May 29, 1953 when Hillary and Sherpa Norgay became the first climbers to reach the mountain's summit.

"I was born in the February; Everest was conquered in the May so, of course, I didn't know anything about it - it wasn't as if I heard the news and shook my rattle from my cot - but it always intrigued me that I was born before someone reached the top."

Nalayini says sometimes her husband refers to events as "B.E." - before Everest - and "A.E." or after Everest, to which he replies that's because it was a formative moment and stories were oft revisited during his boyhood.

Davies read a lot about Everest and says like many things, there are little-known "untold nuggets" that deserve to be heard because they're fascinating and bring extra insight to well-known exploits.

Everest Untold focuses on two members of the expedition. The first is British team leader Sir John Hunt (played by Lovatt) who had top billing in promotional material for the 1953 film The Conquest of Everest.

"There he was, with his name up in lights, and now nobody remembers Hunt - or, if they do, he's just a footnote," says Davies.

The second is New Zealand climber George Lowe, who was Hillary's climbing partner and directed the Academy-Award nominated documentary film.

"You had teams and within each team, there were pairs who climbed together," explains Davies.

"George Lowe and Hillary were a pair and best friends, who travelled together from New Zealand to join the team. Somewhere on the expedition, they stopped climbing together but they remained friends till the end."

He initially thought he would write a one-person play focusing on Lowe but introducing Hunt, a man very different from Lowe in background and manner, allowed him to add extra elements of drama and other points of view. Though Brugh originally played Lowe, he's committed to filming the television series 800 Words, meaning fellow actor Edwin Wright portrays the Kiwi mountaineer this time round.

Performance

What: Everest Untold
Where and when: Herald Theatre, May 20-June 4

- NZ Herald

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