2MagpiesTheatre’s Ventoux @ Settle Stories, Giggleswick

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Just a week before the Tour de Yorkshire makes its return, 2Magpies wheeled their epic cycling drama into Giggleswick, to close Settle Stories’ spring season. Veterans of Settle Stories events (their Litvinenko Project played at Falcon Manor last year ago), 2Magpies manage the impressive trick of providing exciting, innovative theatre while remaining utterly accessible and entertaining: any cycling fans attracted by the subject matter would be instantly gripped and involved.

As the audience assembles, the two lycra-clad members of the cast go through training routines—riding, planking, carb-loading—to a soundtrack of pounding dance music. Of the handful of props, it’s the bikes that draw attention and that remain the centre of attention throughout.

However, as Lance Armstrong’s autobiography proclaimed, it’s not about the bike. It’s about the personalities of the riders—Armstrong’s machine-like drive and his great rival, Marco Pantani’s more passionate, individual style. It’s about their towering egos, and it’s about the flaws that brought them down, in their different ways.

We open the play proper with the two actors, Alex Gatehouse as Armstrong and Tom Barnes as Pantani, giving their back-story direct to the audience, while shaving their legs. Armstrong tells how he progressed from being an awkward swimmer, to an accomplished one, to a tri-athlete, to a champion cyclist. There is the sense that he was always looking for the next challenge until he found himself on top of the world, having defeated even testicular cancer—but that he found the ultimate challenge, which he could not face without doping, in staying at the top. He more than once tells the audience that retaining the Tour de France title was harder than winning it.

Pantani’s story, on the other hand, sounds more like a love affair with the bike, which he used to smuggle into the house at night to wash down in the bath. There seems, also, to be an element of compensation for his small stature and the protruding ears that gave him his first name—il elefantino (the little elephant)—before his swashbuckling style and trademark bandana caused him to be re-named il pirata (the pirate).

This expository style is kept up throughout the performance but it never compromises the drama, and although there is no dialogue between the characters, tension is created by the juxtaposition of their speeches and the creative use of their bikes, mimicking the tension of a race, in which the riders are always aware of and in competition with one another, while remaining utterly separate.

Races themselves—particularly the play’s titular race on the Carpentras to Ventoux stage of the 2000 Tour de France—see the bikes facing a screen on which footage of the cruel mountain road is playing, while we listen to race commentary. It’s an effective device, as the audience is right there with the thrill of competition, something that is a particular tribute to the physical commitment of the actors.

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As the title suggests, the Ventoux race is the critical point of the action, and by implication, of the two riders’ lives. After Pantani wins a Pyrrhic victory, with no measurable gap between himself and Armstrong, and the suspicion that his rival actually allowed him to win as a feint in their psychological warfare, it is metaphorically as well as literally downhill for the Italian.

The brandy bottle and the small hill of white powder, which he chops into lines, symbolise his mental unravelling and foreshadow his actual death from a cocaine overdose, alone in a hotel room at the age of 34. Though there can be no doubt about his recreational drug use, the character repeatedly speaks of his persecution over never (quite) proven doping allegations.

Meanwhile, Armstrong defies gravity, dominating the Tour de France for years, striking a messianic posture in his campaign to beat cancer and mixing with egos of similar size to his own: Bill Clinton and Bono are virtually the only non-cyclists named in the piece.

After such hubris, nemesis comes in little yellow envelopes—the colour of his racing jersey, constantly contrasted with Pantani’s pink—containing awkward questions and accusations about doping on Armstrong’s part. Denial, like the defying of gravity, cannot be maintained, and the moment when Armstrong finally reaches self-awareness with the admission that, “Everybody doped, but only I was an arsehole,” might almost be touching, had it not been so amply exemplified beforehand.

The mountain itself is, of course, silent, but one of the projections features a quote from Roland Barthes, “Ventoux is a god of evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” It is a brooding presence in the play as it is in the southern French landscape, and there is a strong sense that Armstrong and Pantani have made their sacrifice and paid their unfair tribute in their vain attempt to conquer the god.

The contrast between this play, performed to a well-attended conventionally-seated theatre, in comparison with the intimate, audience-involving nature of the Litvinenko Project only goes to show the versatility of 2Magpies. There’s a genuine buzz of excitement about what they might come up with next, and there aren’t many such companies of whom it’s possible to say that.

Find out more about 2MagpiesTheatre here. Details of future Settle Stories events can be found here.

Filed under: Written & Spoken Word