A wild place where tragedy and comedy collide
Imagine a man desperately fighting for survival in a bleakly beautiful frozen landscape that is devoid of other human inhabitation and almost entirely lacking in other intelligent life forms.
In serious television documentary territory, this would be the domain of a macho Ray Mears or Bear Grylls character, dodging danger and triumphing against the odds using superior knowledge and skills, while periodically waxing lyrical to camera about his achievements.
Put the scenario in the hands of some of Cornwall's most accomplished and passionate comic actors and writers and you have the foundation for a tragi-comic riot of delightful dottiness.
Alaska is just such a beast, currently being shaken up and fine-tuned for its debut at Exeter's Northcott Theatre in a couple of weeks' time. It is the creation of Black Fish, a new company set up by Kneehigh stalwart Giles King, a seasoned performer in search of an outlet for his own brooding ideas, and a man on a mission to continue the excellent reputation of brave grassroots Cornish theatre. The company's parochial moniker refers to the name given to fish landed outside the legal quota.
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"I have been wanting to do my own work for quite a while now and Alaska is basically my idea," says Giles. "I got really interested in all those documentaries about bushcraft; I wanted to do a tragi-comedy set in minus 40C involving a guy who goes to Alaska in search of the wilderness.... and then, of course, it all goes horribly wrong."
Alaska is set in a magnificent, desolate wasteland at the borderline of civilisation where you can be at one with nature... a place where you can easily lose your way, your bearings and even your very mind.
Plummeting temperatures, technical disasters, and a severe lack of any practical skills whatsoever soon plunge our hero into a nightmarish world of extreme survival, haunted by all things living and dead. Film, firelight, shadow, a host of forest wildlife and a fabulous soundtrack will add to the magic and atmosphere.
Taking one of the two lead acting role himself, artistic director Giles has harnessed the clownish performance genius of Craig Johnson, founder of Squashbox Theatre, to co-star as the semi-spiritual embodiment of Alaskan wisdom and tradition. And he has engaged the writing prowess of Carl Grose to put the show's plot and themes into wise, witty and wonderful words.
The trio have previously appeared in Kneehigh Theatre classics such as The King of Prussia, The Bacchae, Tristan and Yseult and The Red Shoes; in fact, they were two-thirds of Wild Jam and three-quarters of Hansel and Gretel.
Flying by the seat of its pants, the show has been devised, scripted and scored from scratch in what Giles describes as the "old style, high risk" way, and the team includes producer Mark Makin, director Simon Harvey, a composer and a designer.
"We do stretch the theatrical boundaries and give the audience enough to work with; I suppose the show is in classic old school Kneehigh style – that is the common language that links us," he says.
Over the Christmas and New Year period Giles has been in London taking one of the lead roles in Kneehigh's panto-esque Midnight's Pumpkin at Battersea Arts Centre, and squeezing in blocks of rehearsals with Black Fish back in Cornwall.
"I tried to get a Cornwall-based team so we could shortcut the rehearsal time because we are all busy with other projects," he says. "And it's working out really good."
Giles has never actually been to Alaska; the seed of the story was planted several years ago when he was staying in a very cold and wintry Sweden.
"It was close to Christmas time and it was a classic landscape, 4ft deep in snow," he says.
"There was one day when I went for an eight-hour walk and it was the one time in my life when I never came across another human being. It was just about snow and forest and there was no connection with the modern way of living.
"That's quite a rare thing these days and that was the start of the whole idea and the basis of what I'm trying to get over in the show."
He compares this with going for a walk on the cliffs of Cornwall's north coast of Cornwall; it will be quite isolated, but you will always see a house or a boat, or something manmade even if you don't meet another human being along the route.
"I've watched a lot of videos about extreme survival and bushcraft – ones with Ray Mears and Bear Grylls, but there's a huge selection out there," says Giles. "I was just watching one about the Alaskan goldrush; people from all over the world were heading there, and if you didn't get it right, then you were dead."
Giles, originally from Liskeard, trained at Dartington College of Arts and started working with Kneehigh in 1987. His first step in getting Alaska off the ground was to secure some funding from Feast in Cornwall to do some research work for the production, which has since been backed by the Arts Council.
It is being produced in association with the Northcott, where it premieres, but in its scratch form it had an early airing in front of performing arts students at Tremough, near Penryn – the new home of courses that once ran at Dartington.
"It's nice to be able to put something back with that connection," says Giles, who will tour with Kneehigh's Tristan and Iseult later in the year.
Alaska is touring venues in Devon, Cornwall and beyond, starting at Exeter's Northcott on January 17 and 18; then at The Acorn, Penzance on January 19 and again on March 10; Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington on January 29 ; Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis on February 2; Mylor Theatre, Truro on February 6; The Poly, Falmouth on February 7 and 8; Village Hall, Devoran on February 9; Hall for Gwinear on February 15; Village hall, North Hill, Cornwall on February 16; Towednack Community Hall on March 2, and Grampound Community Hall on March16.