New play 'Everest Untold' focuses on members of the 1953 expedition that saw Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first to reach the summit. Linda Herrick reports

Auckland playwright Gareth Davies, a self-confessed Everest "nut", knows so many stories about the historic efforts to climb the highest mountain in the world.

Many of those stories are widely known but not so much the bizarre saga of the 1933 Houston-Everest Flight Expedition. When he described it to actors Jonny Brugh and Stephen Lovatt, who star in his new play Everest Untold, they were gobsmacked.

Lady Houston, an eccentric aristocrat, funded the enterprise - two flimsy biplanes led by the Marquis of Clydesdale of Scotland to fly over the peak and plant the Union Jack at the top by throwing it like a javelin out of the plane. The outside air temperature would have been -30C. It was the very first flight over "the top of the world" and although the pilots had oxygen masks, to save weight they carried no parachutes.

"This is for real," splutters Lovatt. "They had oxygen masks and electrically heated suits and it's all tally-ho and what-oh. They literally had a shot and threw the flag out, which tumbled down the mountain. That was one of the things we'd be talking about with Gareth when he was developing the script and he'd drop stuff like that in and we'd go,'What?'"

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The flight did have a payoff, though; aerial photos of Everest (one of the photographers almost died of oxygen loss) provided data for maps for future expeditions, including the 1953 effort which saw Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reach the summit.

Everest Untold centres on two members of that expedition: British team leader Sir John Hunt, played by Lovatt, and New Zealand climber George Lowe (Brugh).

"The conceit of the piece is that John Hunt and George Lowe have been invited to give a talk in 1959 on the ascent," says Brugh. "Sir John has a speech and a box of slides then George comes in at the invitation of Sir John and it's the two of them working off each other."

"And because these two guys have the shared experience, their public face begins to fall apart a little and you start to see some of the emotional content," adds Lovatt.

Brugh says Davies wanted to write the play to "resuscitate the team" involved in the 1953 triumph. "That's in no way to take anything away from Ed and Tenzing," he says, "but there can be a perception that those two guys went out and climbed the mountain. It's Gareth's endeavour and I think he has done a good job to re-establish that, yes, they did it but they did it with the help of the team. It was like getting to the moon, except instead of bits of the spaceship dropping off as they got closer, it was humans."

"They were exhausted," says Lovatt. "And there was a lot of chance. The fittest climbers on the day were chosen to go and that could have been any of the team. What this play does is highlight a couple of chaps who were the first summit pair and they go up and cut steps and prepare. If they can go all the way - well, they try to but it doesn't go well and they don't make it. Their story, in my opinion, is the most profound."

Everest Untold runs for an hour, a short piece when you consider the rich mine of stories they have to play with. "Because Gareth is so knowledgeable about the material he has got us up to speed so we have been involved with developing the script," says director Toby Leech. "So now we have taken over the story. We have been working on the script for about a year, on and off."

"In our torrid process of having lots of Gareth's stories and wanting to tell the story, a lot of what I initially thought of as cliche moments have dropped away," adds Brugh.

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"It's a difficult thing when there is so much to be said," agrees Lovatt, who recently appeared in Gaylene Preston's TV series Hope and Wire, about the Christchurch earthquakes. We've got to keep moving forward or we will lose the narrative ... what really landed it for me was the massive amount of pressure on them to succeed. One of the crucial things was that in the next year France was going to have a shot, then the Americans, then the Japanese. So if they didn't do it in 1953, they were going to have to wait and hope the next three teams were going to fail."

Although this debut season is short, Leech says they are already thinking ahead. "We'd especially like to get kids engaged. There is no swearing in it..."

Brugh and Lovatt immediately protest that there is. "I say jove at one point," says Lovatt; "I say bloody," adds Brugh, who played bloody lazy vampire flatmate Deacon in the film What We Do in the Shadows, which has just won the People's Choice Award in the Midnight Madness category at the Toronto Film Festival.

The Everest Untold team went to British writer Huw Lewis-Jones' fascinating session on the 1953 Everest expedition at the Auckland Writers Festival in May, in which the writer used George Lowe's superb photographs to illustrate the talk. Afterwards, Gareth Davies jumped the queue for the book signings, and told Lewis-Jones about the play they were working on. He looked them up and down, Lovatt laughs, and said: "You, Stephen, look just like John Hunt. And you, Jon, don't look anything like George Lowe."

Performance

What: Everest Untold
Where and when: Q Theatre Loft, September 24-27 at 7.30pm