Jan Bolwell

Taking the High Ground

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This is a new play that looks at the lives of two brilliant women mountaineers. Freda du Faur, an Australian, was the first woman to scale Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1910. Lydia Bradey, a New Zealander, was the first woman to scale Mount Everest solo and without oxygen in 1988.

Playwright Jan Bolwell brings these two women together across time to challenge and confront each other about their climbing prowess and the challenges and difficulties they faced in both their professional and personal lives.

Playwright: Jan Bolwell
Director: Annie Ruth
Choreographer: Sacha Copland
Designer: Lisa Maule
Cast: Jan Bolwell, Emily Retgien, Isobel McKinnon, Simon Paenga

Premiere: Bats Theatre, December 5-9 2017


A few words from Jan Bolwell ...

I am a South Islander and I adore the Southern Alps, and I have always been fascinated by the story of Freda du Faur, the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1910. When I read Sally Irwin's biography of Freda Between Heaven and Earth I decided 'this is it. I have to write a play about her.'

As this is my sixth play I wanted to challenge myself as a playwright. Instead of writing a conventional historical play I decided to bring Freda together across time with Lydia Bradey, the first woman to scale Mt Everest solo and without oxygen. Lydia agreed to my dramatising her story, so off I went. The result is my play Taking the High Ground written on a residency at the Robert Lord Writers Cottage in Dunedin. I am thrilled that our premiere will take place at Bats Theatre 5-9th of December this year.

I play the older Freda looking back on her life. She gets into some amusing conversations with twenty-something Lydia, played by Emily Retgien, as they have a verbal wrestling match about their climbing feats and personal trials and tribulations.

Young Freda, played by Isobel McKinnon arrives at Aoraki/Mount Cook and challenges her guide Peter Graham, played by Simon Paenga, to take her up the mountain. We see a growing relationship of mutual respect as Peter realises what a talented climber Freda is.

Freda introduces to this climbing world her lifelong partner and trainer, Muriel Cadogan, played also by Emily Retgien. Their lives changes radically when they travel to England just before WW1 and become heavily involved in the English Suffragette Movement.

In other climbing scenes we accompany Lydia on the famous El Capitan rock wall in California and up Mount Everest and into the controversial fallout that followed her remarkable solo feat. A scaffolded set, designed by the fabulous Lisa Maule, who also designs the lighting, provides an actual physical challenge for the actors. The climbing sequences are performed on a four metre high structure, and choreographed by the talented Sacha Copland of Java Dance Company.

Bringing all this together is our experienced director, Annie Ruth, former head of Toi Whakaari, NZ Drama School and producer Shirley Domb. What a team!

As you can see this is not a small undertaking! I would welcome your financial support for our production costs, in particular our fantastic set design which is going to add such an exciting dynamic to our play. Any contribution, large or small, would be most welcome. I hope after this initial season to get the play around the country so the rest of New Zealand can enjoy the Freda/Lydia story.

Thanks, in anticipation from me and all the 'High Grounders'!

Taking the High Ground is being produced independently without government agency funding. Handstand Productions, Jan Bolwell's theatre company, is using accumulated funds to get the project under way and over three quarters of the funds needed are in place.

How you can help

We'd be incredibly grateful if you could help us raise the remaining $3000 to get our exciting mountaineering set built and to secure our props and costumes. You can help us 'get over the wire' by donating to our crowdfunding campaign on Boosted.

You can also support us by circulating this link to our website to your friends and whanau: https://janbolwell.com

Organising: a pre-Christmas group booking: https://bats.co.nz/whats-on/taking-the-high-ground/

Or, promote us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Taking-the-High-Ground-1937122629871765/


  • Thank you!


    Dear friends and colleagues, thank you so much for your terrific response to our Boosted campaign.
    We are overwhelmed and delighted at the speed with which our campaign has been successfully completed.
    Your generosity in helping get Taking the High Ground to the stage is much appreciated.
    Blessings on you all!

    Jan x