BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _@SOHO PLACE.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _12th AUG.

May 19, 2023

images © Manuel Harlan.

Laced with its own quiescent, elegiac quality, and encompassing the span of practically an entire lifetime of fleeting moments and stifled dreams as it is, it isn’t difficult to comprehend that interpretation of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. You know the one; endlessly overwrought, bum-achingly indulgent. Interval as escape route.

Ang Lee’s now-seminal, Academy Award-gobbling (minus the infamous exception…) film adaptation had the luxury of languishing on its stunning, occasionally-haunting titular vistas, or the pensive, lingering throb of the edit.

And yet, it’s worth bearing in mind that Proulx’s own original short story, of unexpected, forbidden romance between two shepherds, was a fairly succinct affair, clocking in at just shy of 60 pages when it was first published, back in the late-nineties.

It’s what makes Jonathan Butterell and Ashley Robinson’s new transplant of the story to the stage such an interesting and dynamic offering. Clocking in at 90 minutes without an interval, this is raw, immediate theatre that somehow manages to be haunting, measured yet punchy at once.

The idea of making the most of what few moments of true happiness we have, and the isolated, hushed impermanence of its central love, are key themes that course through the centre of Brokeback – and it’s what makes the segmented, vignette approach taken here really sing. Ennis (Lucas Hedges) and Jack (Mike Faist) get very little time or life together, and as an audience, the feeling of wanting even more is a surprisingly effective – not to mention fitting – use of form and structure. Beautiful moments of tenderness are short but sweet. Any time the pair are not together on stage, we yearn to see them reunited. It’s never enough. It’s almost always cut short.

It’s sort of the entire point.

“…the feeling of wanting even more proves a surprisingly effective – not to mention fitting – use of form and structure.”

The confidence in Brokeback’s relative briskness is offered some extra clout by way of Butterell’s long-time collaborator, Dan Gillespie Sells (of The Feeling and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie fame) teaming up with inspired choice of songstress, Eddi Reader, to set key beats and moments here to song. Sure, it’s undeniably and unabashedly Country and Western, at times in an almost borderline-parodic sense, but it’s all live and acoustic, and makes for soulful, evocative and scene-setting stuff, with Reader’s vocals pristine and stirring accompaniment. There’s likely an argument to be made that the soundtrack and score of Lee’s film often get slightly overlooked when appraising its pathos and success (EmmyLou Harris’ ‘A Love That Will Never Grow Old’ being mostly, criminally, forgotten), but Butterell and team commit no such faux pas here.

They were raised on small, poor ranches…: Annie Proulx’s celebrated short form (original cover pictured above, © Fourth Estate) is just one of the author’s many celebrated works, yet remains perhaps her most prolific. Proulx has expressed, in recent years, her frustration that many fans are so connected to the story’s two leads that they pen fan fiction with alternate, ‘happy’ endings, seemingly entirely bypassing the real perspective and theme of Brokeback – namely the harsh causes, realities and consequences of homophobia and internalised, homphobic attitudes.

Elsewhere, Tom Pye’s staging is suitably stripped back, earthy and unshowy, but when coupled with David Finn’s measured lighting work, proves surprisingly transformative. Live campfires, working faucets, and even the odd sprinkle of snow create a theatre-in-the-round environ that never distracts from its central performances, but embeds a palpable sense of place about them. Cast members place on the edge of stage, almost within the audience’s laps, an older Ennis (Paul Hickey) broods around at the periphery throughout, whilst Reader and band are never little more than an arm’s length away. It all feels real, present and immediate.

“A bravura, barnstorming turn from a seriously impressive actor…”

And it’s here that Brokeback’s real coup manifests. Hickey, along with Emily Fairn as Ennis’ struggling wife Alma and Martin Marquez in a variety of bit parts, all offer up solid supporting work. There’s a perhaps surprising amount of humour peppered in there, too. Jack’s wife Lureen, memorably played by Anne Hathaway on screen, is mentioned here but barely features – relegated to a glorified, late-game cameo by company member Sophie Reid.

They were raised on small, poor ranches…: Annie Proulx’s celebrated short form (original cover pictured above, © Fourth Estate) is just one of the author’s many celebrated works, yet remains perhaps her most prolific. Proulx has expressed, in recent years, her frustration that many fans are so connected to the story’s two leads that they pen fan fiction with alternate, ‘happy’ endings, seemingly entirely bypassing the real perspective and theme of Brokeback – namely the harsh causes, realities and consequences of homophobia and internalised, homphobic attitudes.

But it’ll come as little surprise that the production belongs to Faist and Hedges. Faist, recently lighting up Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, gets the showier role, as the charismatic but flippant Jack Twist, and it’s a bravura, barnstorming (to forgive a slight pun) turn from a seriously impressive actor. His Jack is crackling, boyish, with an often sardonic quality that brings much of the levity (“You know friend, this is a god damn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation”). Hedges gets the trickier job of landing the quieter, reserved Ennis, and it isn’t until the latter half of the show that he gets meatier moments to sink into. Like Heath Ledger before him, Hedges does an admirable, confident job in letting Faist take the reigns early on, and doesn’t overplay his hesitant, troubled Ennis.

“Perhaps most impressively, the duo step out of the shadow of their forebears and put stamps of their own on the two leads…”

Perhaps most impressively, the duo step out of the shadow of their forebears and put stamps of their own on the two leads; even pivotal moments, such as Twist’s iconic ‘I wish I knew how to quit you’ line, are delivered here with a distinctive confidence and uniqueness of their own.

There’s an unfiltered physicality to their passions, too. It may seem a trifle indelicate to go there, but there is decidedly more intimacy (not to mention quasi-nudity!) here than was depicted on film, with Twist’s relishing of their trysts and sexual encounters in particular far more elated and unashamed. It may just be reflective of the times that the 2005 film arrived in, coupled with the direct nature of theatre (particularly in a fairly intimate space as this), but there’s undoubtedly a sense that this Brokeback celebrates, and certainly doesn’t shy away from, the physical attraction and sexual joy shared between its leads. There may be some subjectivity at play here, and it’s far from the most erotic or revealing thing you’ll see (even in the West End), but it’ll be an extra Eagle feather in the cowboy hat for much of its inevitable audience.

There’s doubtless myriad ways in which Brokeback Mountain could be rendered on stage. You could easily double the runtime. Some would chop the songs. Others still would heap flats upon levels upon design upon spectacle. Yet there’s a frisson and charge in what Butterell, Hedges and Faist capture here. It is fleeting, unforgiving. It is raw and direct. It is immediate yet fractured. Reader’s gorgeous tone lends soul and context to the romance, the heartbreak and ultimate anguish. The evocative stagecraft supports and frames, yet never distracts from, the smouldering partnership at its heart and centre.

You’ll likely walk away from Brokeback feeling, like its characters, that the time spent was too short. Yet it isn’t so much rushed as ‘leave ‘em wanting more’.

“There ain’t never enough time,” Jack memorably, heartbreakingly laments in one of the show’s final interactions.

It’s in a beautiful, tragic sort of way, the very essence of Proulx’s writing, and the perfect credo for this absorbing, moving return to Brokeback.

Faist and Hedges shine in this raw, sensitively staged and handsomely performed retelling. Reader offers up extra soul, whilst Butterell & Robinson make good on the tragic ‘Brokeback’ truth that, ultimately, ‘there ain’t never enough time’…

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