libretto for music by Geoff Westley Commissioned by ROH Garden Venture

TRAVELS IN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE   

Prologue


TERN      Once a young wife took for her lover a polar bear. The bear said: You must never tell     your husband or he will kill me.  But she did, and the bear heard her and hid.  When the men left with their sleds and harpoons he came to her house, he raised up his paws to smash it in. He stopped.  He turned and set off on a long journey.



Walking

A man dressed in arctic gear setting out across the ice.

WALKER    Here
                On the white edge of the world
                Only the horizon
                The ice meeting the sky
                Here
                Alone between heaven and earth
                Not a bird not a beast
                Not a tree not a sign of life
                Just one man on the ice
                No binds no ties no needs
                Out on the edge
                Brave pioneer
                Walking north
                To the north pole
                Alone on his own into the unknown
                To the point where all is down

            Stops.

WALKER    This pack's too heavy.  Too much junk in the pack. Too many things.  Never get there in a thousand years carrying all these things. Travelling light.

            Takes off the pack.

                Clothes.  Leave them for a start.  Not going to any parties.  No one to object to the smell.  Stove.  I'll make a fire.  Food.  I can find that. Plenty of fish in the sea.  Travelling light.  Travel lighter.  Rope. Could be useful.  Maps. Who wants to go the way someone went before.  I'm finding my own way.  Only what's useful.  Only what's needed.  Photos.  My father.  My wife.  My son.  Remember them. Only what's needed.  Only what's essential.  Ice pick.  Hook. Harpoon.  These I can carry.  Travelling light.



Birds

            A flock of birds.  They fly all around him.  He is surrounded by their calls.

WALKER     White birds.  Arctic terns.  They nest in the tundra, winter at the south pole.  Now come north to nest again. Year in year travel the world. Never losing the path.  Tracking earth's magnetic field or some ancestral map.  They see more light than any other creature. And more snow. 

            A white feather on the ice.  He picks it up.

                Follow them north.


Seal

            He fishes at a hole in the ice.  A SEAL appears.  Barks at him.  Barks again.
   
WALKER    Go away.

            SEAL barks twice

WALKER    Go away.

            SEAL barks twice.

WALKER    Shut up.

            Silence.

WALKER    No thank you.  I'm not hungry.  What makes you think I'm hungry.  And I know how to fish.  Leave me alone.  I don't need your help.

            WALKER barks at the SEAL. 
            Pause. 
            The SEAL produces a fish out of the air. WALKER ignores him.  The SEAL produces another.  A third out of WALKER's ear.  WALKER looks at the SEAL.  Starts to chase it.  The SEAL stops suddenly.

SEAL         Stop!  Stop!  Don't move.

WALKER    What is it?

SEAL         Bear.

WALKER    Where?

SEAL         Out there.

WALKER    I can't see. 

SEAL         There on the ridge. 

WALKER    Wandering bear. 

SEAL         If we don't move he'll leave us alone.

            The BEAR lumbers off.  They unfreeze.

WALKER    Are you following me?

SEAL         I thought you were following me.

WALKER    I'm walking to the North Pole alone.

SEAL         So why are you walking south?

WALKER    Follow the birds.

SEAL         It's autumn.  They're leaving home.

WALKER    I thought it was spring.

            They go on together.

                Time runs strange.  Fast or slow I can't tell.  Heavier somehow. Heavy light.  Nights that last a whole winter. 

SEAL        Summer sun circles the horizon.  Never setting, never dipping into the sea.  Red eye hung in the sky.  Circling, circling.

TOGETHER     Seasons of twilight, wolflight, luminous skies.  Spring that creeps towards daybreak: autumn that fades towards night.


Night

            Arctic night.  They pitch camp.

SEAL         What are you thinking of?

WALKER    My son.  Nine next birthday.

SEAL         Does he miss you?

WALKER    He doesn't know what missing is.

SEAL         Do you?

WALKER    The roundness of his head.
                The smallness of his legs against mine.
                The weight of his arms on my neck.
                His smile.
                The strangeness of his elbows.
                His laugh.
                His open eyes.

            He looks at the SEAL looking at him; he raises his ice-pick to club it.

SEAL        You wanted food I brought it.
                I saved you from the bear.
                You were lost and I showed you the way.
                We walked together across the snow.
                So why do you want to kill me?

WALKER    I am walking to the North Pole alone.

SEAL         Will you ever find the way alone?

            A snow flurry.  The SEAL is gone.


Stars

            WALKER throws away the ice-pick.
            Looks up.

WALKER    Polaris, pole star.  The hip and tail of the Great Bear.  The Greeks gave the place its name: Arktikos, the country of the Great Bear. Where the skies were blue and the soil was fertile.  Where it snowed white feathers and violence was unknown.

            Laughs.  The laughter echoes emptily.

WALKER    Now how to find a way?  Not a bird, not a beast, not a creature. Only the featureless plain and the stars.  The pole star.  Follow the tail to the hip of the bear, follow the hip to the shoulder, follow the shoulder to the pole star.  To the pole.

            Goes on.

                Walking
                The white edge of the world
                Only the horizon
                Only the rim where the sun never shows
                Only the ice and the sky
                Only one man under the stars
                Alone, on his own, into the unknown

            Stops to look at the ice.

                Bear tracks.  Bear again. Wandering bear.

                Are you following me?
   
            Echoes.

                You can't follow me.  This is my journey see?  I don't need your company. 


Ice

            Cracking sound.  He steps.  The ice cracks again.

WALKER    Suddenly thin.  Thin ice.  Stretched to a skin ice.

            Step: crack.

                Where to walk?  How to know the ice will hold?

            Step: no crack.

                Under the ice: dark water. 

            Step: no crack.

                Under the ice: cold sea.

            Step: crack.

                Only white skin between me and the sea.

            Crack

                These boots are too heavy.

            He takes off his boots.

                Fall in the ocean in arctic waters
                Fall in the ocean the choices are few:
                Stay in the water and freeze in a minute
                Crawl back on land and freeze in two.
   
                Go back.

            Takes a step back the way he's come:  crack.

                Can't go back.

            Steps forward: crack.

                Thin ice.  Thinning ice.  Darkening over the water below.  No going back.  Must go forward.  Which way to go?

            Step: no crack.

                Under the ice: dark water.

            Step: no crack.

                Under the ice: cold sea.

            Step: no crack.

                Only white skin between you and the sea.
                Fall in the ocean in arctic waters
                Fall in the ocean the choices are few
                Stay in the water and freeze in a minute
                Crawl back on land and freeze in two
                Or walk boldly over the thin ice
                risking your life with every footfall
                till you come to the point where the ice is thickening, whitening, firm under foot,     knowing that you have survived.


Hunt

            Looks down.

WALKER    Blood.  Scuffed snow.  Red smeared on the white.  A fight.  A kill.  Who's dead? 

            He picks up a blood stained ice-pick from the ice.

                Bear tracks.  Bear heading away.  Bear with its prey.  Tail, hip, shoulder, jaw.  Follow the bear.  Hunt the bear.  Hunt the hunter.

                Here
                On the white edge of the world
                Only the horizon
                Only the rim where the sun never shows
                One man on the track of a bear
                Over the ice
                Under the stars
                On the scent of the killer
                Into the unknown
                To the point where all is down.


Crevasse

            "Down" echoes into the crevasse before him. The sound sucked away into the ground.

WALKER    White into grey into blue into blackness. Gashed into ice like an axe into skin.  Crevasse. Oneside land: the farside land and inbetween nothing.  White into grey into blue into blackness.

                How easy to fall.  Step.  Over the edge and end the journey here. White into grey into blue into blackness. Bear tracks this side.  Bear tracks farside.  Just one bearbound over the darkness.  Spring of the hip of the tail of the shoulder. Cross.

            He throws a rope over.  Slowly starts to work his way across.  His voice echoes more and more wildly.

                One. My son tottering his first steps.  Two.  My wife's eyes.  Three. The hands of my mother.  Four. The shape of a tree.  Don't look down.  Five.  Waking in a warm bed. Six. A stretch of shore.

            He slips.  Takes hold again.

                Seven.  Crossing a playground.  Eight.  Her eyes. Her hair. Her mouth.  Nine.  My son on his birthday.  Ten.  My son at birth. Eleven.  My father's laugh. Twelve -
   
            Slips.  Falls.  Hanging on the rope.

                Don't look down.  Blue into grey into. Twelve.  Don't look down. Into grey into bla -.  Twelve.  Don't.  Can't.  Into blackness.


Bear

            He's hauled up by a polar bear and deposited on the ice.  He looks up: sees the BEAR.  Backs off, holding the ice-pick.

BEAR        Where could you run to?  Frozen ocean in every direction.  Four hundred miles to the nearest land. Below us snow, windblown ice, sea ice, and then deep water.

WALKER    I'm walking to the North Pole.

BEAR         Why are you walking east?

WALKER    I was following the pole star.

            The BEAR laughs broadly.

BEAR        Poor Walker. Clutching at stars.  At feathers of birds. Drifting man under a shifting sky.  His only goal is a pole which is never where he expects.  No way is ever correct.  No way is the way forward.  No time is ever the right time.  Never any light.

            Sees a bear on a ridge.  Wandering bear.  Pilgrim on the edge of a floe.  Walker would follow.  Walker would hunt.  Walker would not be alone.

WALKER    I wanted to kill you.  I'm walking to the north pole alone.

BEAR         You'll need some boots.

            The BEAR gives him boots.

WALKER    Smooth, soft, they feel like -

TOGETHER    Sealskin.

BEAR        Slaphappy, skiphappy seal.  Smooth skin.  Seal with the face of a child.  With the eyes of a child that adored you.  Loved you.  Like a son.

WALKER    No.

BEAR        Slipseal child.  Whiptailed in the ocean.  Clumsy on land.  Wanting only to understand.  To learn. To walk with you.

WALKER    No!

            No echo.
            A snow flurry.  The BEAR is gone. 
            Dead sound.

 
Storm


             The wind forms itself into the voice of the SEAL:

SEAL         Summer sun circles.  Never setting.  Never dipping into the sea.  Red eye hung in the sky.  Circling, circling.

WALKER    Walking, walking.  On the white edge of the world.  Alone.  Not a bird, not a bind, not a beast, not a need.  No ties.  Only the. 

BEAR         No goal is ever the pole.

SEAL          Seasons of twilight, wolflight, luminous skies.

WALKER     Brave.  On the ice.  On the snow.  On the scent. 

BEAR         Nothing direct.  Nothing correct.  Nothing is ever what you'd expect.

WALKER     One.  On his own.

SEAL          Spring that creeps towards daybreak:

WALKER     One.  On the unknown. 

BEAR          No way is right.

WALKER     One.  Out of the light. 

SEAL          autumn that fades towards night

WALKER     Under the sky.  One. 

BEAR         Never any light

WALKER     To the point where all is

ALL            Down

WALKER     Alone
                 Not a need, not a tie, not a bind.  Not a life.

BEAR         No wife

SEAL          No father

WALKER     Only

WALKER/SEAL   the pole

BEAR         Only the point

WALKER/SEAL   Only the end

WALKER/BEAR   The place

WALKER/SEAL   The heart
 


The Northern Lights

                   The storm subsides.
                   The BEAR again.


BEAR         Don't be afraid.

WALKER    I'm not afraid.

BEAR        You're shaking.

WALKER    Cold.  My bones ache with it.

BEAR        Come into my arms and rest.
 
            The BEAR embraces him. 

            The sky fills with light.  Sheets of fragile colour that twist and turn.  Huge sails of light blown in the wind.

TERN        Guovssahasat vihket, lip, lip, lip
            buodi njálmmis, lip, lip, lip
            veahcir gállus, lip, lip, lip
            ákšu sealggis, lip, lip, lip

            Guovssahas, guovssahas
            Ruoná gákti badjelis
            fiskes liidni ceabehis
            Buoidebihttá njálmmis
            Veahcir gállus
            ákšu sealggis
            ja nu civká, ja nu civká

BEAR        Nowhere east.  Nowhere south or west or north.  Poor Walker.  What have you learned?  Where have you journeyed?  What have you found?  Unbound, untied, untimed.  Under the light.  Have you come to the point?  Why are you heavy in light?



Morning

            The BEAR has disappeared, leaving his fur. 
            WALKER collects fur, boots, feather and ice-pick and lays them on the ice. 
            The sky is blue.

WALKER    Here
                On the white edge of the world
                No bird no bear no seal no star
                Only the light
                Only alone in the light

                How many miles?  How many more miles?


Tern

            White feathers are falling.
   
TERN         To where?

WALKER     The north pole.

TERN          You've passed it.

WALKER     When?

TERN          Way back.

WALKER     Where?
                  How could I miss it? 

            TERN laughs.

TERN           What did you expect?  A sign in the ice.  A pole. A place to write your name?

         

End.