Ventoux at the Richard Whiteley Theatre, 21/04/2016. Settle Stories Spring Events Season. Reviewed by Gill O'Donnell for the Craven Herald and Pioneer.
Arriving in the theatre, the audience is greeted by a darkened stage on which there are three cool boxes, two racing bikes, their back wheels off the ground supported by stands and a huge screen as backdrop. There are also two lycra clad men, warming up for the performance. While theatre is sometimes energetic, it isn't usual to see the actors' warm up routine: however this is not usual theatre. The warm ups are not for the acting, but for the bicycle race which is to follow. From the moment the show begins the audience is immersed in the re-running of one of the world's greatest cycling duels: the ascent of Ventoux in July 2000, when Marco (The Pirate) Pantani and Lance Armstrong went head to head in Stage 12 of the Tour De France.
Initially it is hard to differentiate between the two combatants: their rituals as they warm up are identical and at times totally synchronised, their actions on the bikes likewise and from what they tell us it would seem that their stories are also similar. Both have come to cycling as a means of proving themselves, both have overcome huge obstacles and both have a lot to prove by conquering the mountain and by beating each other. The one difference which is emphasized is that one has been accused of cheating by using drugs. This of course is where the twist is meant to come, because the alleged cheat is not Armstrong but Pantani and it is only with hindsight that we know that for all his arrogant posturing, Armstrong is actually the one who will bring the sport into disrepute. Unfortunately, this key point really doesn't quite work because the storytelling and timeline of events becomes muddled as the play progresses so that on leaving the production there were still members of the audience who were unsure as to which bits of the action had been flashbacks - or as I overheard, "I don't get it, why did they re-run the race twice when the result was the same".
On many levels this was a stunning piece of theatre and the dedication of the two actors is immense, the cycling alone is exhausting! They create two fascinating portraits of men driven by ambition and willing to make any sacrifice to achieve their goals, fierce rivals but each acknowledging each other's achievements. However, as an audience member with only basic knowledge of the back story it was at times difficult to differentiate between the two in any meaningful way.
It was also a very theatrical experience in many respects: the use of the actual race commentary was powerful, as was the video background of the route itself shot by the pair as they made the actual journey up Ventoux. Coupled with this is the astonishing soundtrack which replicates the beating hearts and whine of the racing bike wheels. Everything about the production is designed to heighten the intensity, to ensure that the audience understand the destruction which Ventoux can wreak on those who challenge it. Author Roland Barthes made a claim that the Frenchmountain of Ventoux is a god of evil, to which sacrifices must be made and it is very apparent that both Armstrong and Pantani believe that any sacrifice is worthwhile.
Sadly, I personally felt that those devising the play also fell under this curse and in their attempt to conquer Ventoux lost the ability to step back and view their output critically. Using only Armstrong's own words as given in interviews in order to create his script did make it realistic but it also made him very unsympathetic as a central character and created only a two dimensional performance. He may well have been a hard, driven man but by showing nothing behind the mask he came across simply as an arrogant hypocrite whereas at least Pantani was seen to be able to recognise his own weaknesses and vulnerability. Similarly, a little more critical faculty might have ensured that there was some simple device incorporated to ensure that the timeline of the action was more accessible to the audience so that it was left thinking rather than just wondering on whether this was a case of self indulgent artifice for the sake of art .