Antarctic adventurers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott may loom large in Kiwi minds, but a New Zealand Festival show may be the first time many hear of their little-known yet heroic companion, Tom Crean.
One of the last to see Scott alive, the Irish explorer played a daring part in the tragic Terra Nova expedition to reach the South Pole in 1912. Part of the returning support party, Crean trekked 58 kilometres alone through a blizzard on scarce rations to seek help for the ailing Edgar Evans.
Evans and fellow explorer William Lashly were successfully rescued and Crean's efforts were rewarded with an Albert Medal for bravery.
He also accompanied Shackleton on the daring 1500km Antarctic voyage in the James Caird lifeboat to South Georgia to seek rescue for the stranded Endurance expedition in 1916.
Aidan Dooley, who plays the titular role in the one-man production, was first asked to tell Crean's story to visitors to the Britain's National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in 2001. "There was this Irish guy they'd found who'd served with both Shackleton and Scott - he was unusual in that regard."
While initial weekend performances at the museum focused on Crean's views of the famous figures, a newly published book on the "Irish giant" caught Dooley's attention. "I realised all that Tom Crean had been involved in and he was hardly mentioned in the exhibition. I felt that pain in your gut of real injustice - here he was 100 years [later] and he'd been forgotten again."
It was then Dooley's character began to tell his own stories. "The show just started to build. It went from 20 minutes, to 40 minutes, to 50 minutes," the 51-year-old says.
But it was when the actor performed Tom Crean - Antarctic Explorer in Annascaul, Crean's hometown in Ireland in front of Crean's own daughters, he knew he had something special.
"Both of them said it was fantastic to hear their father's stories being brought to a wider audience."
The Kent-based theatre company director and thespian has now been performing Crean for over 12 years.
Dooley says what makes Crean a particularly hard character to crack was the explorer's reticence. He left only a handful of diary entries and letters.
"He was very much an ordinary man, who did things and didn't document them in the hope he'd be remembered once he was dead. That wouldn't have even crossed his mind.
"When he returned to Ireland, though, he was a traitor because he'd served with the British navy. If he had sung his own praises, they might have put a bullet in his head."
Such scarcity of detail could prove a challenge, though Dooley says an upbringing immersed in the traditional Irish "shanachie" storyteller style proved very beneficial.
"In one story, the only diary reference is Crean said 'That's your birthday present, Bill' after he pulled a man out of a crevasse. So I'd construct a story based on that, on that one and only historical fact.
"There's a little bit of supposition in there but not a lot."
In fact, the biggest departure from reality Dooley takes in the performance is to have the character of Crean telling his stories.
"Tom Crean wouldn't have talked to anyone. I used to say at the end of the show . . . you'd have sat here for 50 minutes and you'd have looked at Tom Crean and he wouldn't have talked to you," he says.
"By the time he had come back to Ireland he'd looked into the depths of death and come to terms with it. He loved his own company."
Tom Crean plays at Te Papa's Soundings Theatre, from today until Saturday, 7.30pm and Sunday at 2.30pm.
The show will also playing at the Little Theatre, Lower Hutt on March 11, Kuranui College, Greytown, March 12, Civic Theatre, Otaki on March 13, all performances at 7pm. He will also perform in Christchurch and Auckland. Find details at www.festival.co.nz
- The Dominion Post