THE MOUNTAINTOP

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _ISAAC MILNE.   at _ROYAL EXCHANGE MANCHESTER.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _27th OCT.

October 28, 2021
images © Marc Brenner/Royal Exchange Theatre 2021.
Penned by American Playwright Katori Hall, The Mountaintop is a one-room, two-person drama, first produced in New York, that fictionalises the evening before civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Preparing for a long night of speech-writing, King (Adetomiwa Edun) orders a coffee to the modest Room 306 at the now-infamous Lorraine Motel. The drink is brought to him by Camae (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu), one of the few hotel staff he has yet to meet, and they spend the night locked in political and personal discussion. The New York production never found a home on Broadway, and was subsequently never performed in the States. With such poignant writing on display, it’s inexplicable to imagine why – perhaps the reason is itself telling of the issues described within the text. Without an American home, the production premiered in 2016 in the West End, at Theatre 503. It was directed by Roy Alexander Weise, who, now joint Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, returns to direct this production five years later. Unsurprisingly, it remains as politically relevant today as it did at the time of writing, if not more so. Hall writes about landmark events in history, and vast concepts of peace, fear, and racial inequality, yet anchors them all in humanity. It makes for a story that is emotionally stirring and authentic where it could easily have been politically lecturing, and is all the more effective a piece for it.

This humanity is grounded by Ndlovu and Edun’s extraordinary central performances. Faced with the ever-daunting task of taking on one so etched into our collective consciousness, Edun’s performance is understated, yet lives and breathes with a careful balance between powerful charisma and precise control. In his King, you can see a man who has the presence and magnetism to be the face that represents the pride and dreams of so many, but it is also underscored by dint of being a flawed husband and father, who lives in loneliness and fear. He is compelling to watch, and Edun successfully bears the weight that the writing places on his character to make it function.

Ndlovu is equally compelling, demonstrating a matching, yet contrasting, charisma that is by turns wild and sultry. With pin-sharp direction from Weise, she consistently hits the comedic beats that the play relies on to provide relief from the heavy subject matter. That’s not to say she is just here for the laughs; indeed, Ndlovu’s performance thrives on a burning passion that is also responsible for some of the play’s most affecting moments. The Mountaintop’s first half succeeds on the rapport between the two of them, a whip-smart tennis match of flirtation, expression and preaching that is engaging to witness, providing a sense of an entire social movement in a single conversation between two people.

Standing on the edge of history: Martin Luther King Jr, pictured above with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the day before his assassination. The events of The Mountaintop are set on the very same evening of this now-historic photo.

And then something changes. Just as the play threatens to feel a little one-note, repetitive in structure and performance, Hall introduces some information that entirely re-directs it. Weise pulls this off extremely effectively; whilst, in hindsight, there are hints peppered throughout, the revelation takes the audience entirely by surprise, and it reinvigorates the piece with energy just as it was beginning to feel as though it may grind to a halt. This concept – which would be spoiled by detailing – is an inspired choice by Hall, providing a new perspective, an entirely new lens, through which to observe the subject matter. Theatre often misses the opportunity to present stories like these (with film proving a more popular alternative that can provide a more accurate depiction of historical locations, events, and figures), but the work done here by Hall allows us an entirely new experience that has the same essence of scale, but through a more innovative form, and with more resonant meaning. Following this new path (again, to divulge too much would sully the experience for those going to see it), the audience get the opportunity to feel and consider all the emotion and turmoil wrapped up within the civil rights movement, as well as how this has developed over time, up to and including today. Weise makes a marked change, adopting some minimalist yet expressive lighting and sound design, and a few moments of stagecraft that add a whole new magic to the piece. Entering a new realm, this shift also requires Edun and Ndlovu to take their characters in a different direction, too, particularly Ndlovu who nevertheless navigates the shift with ease. Sustaining accents, complex characterisations and a colourful emotional palette over a two-hour runtime (with no break!) requires a mastery of craft and technique, and they both pull it off well.

For all the praise, however, the lengthy runtime, combined with an extremely heavy focus on dialogue, and such an emotionally and intellectually heavy subject matter, makes for a viewing experience that is, at times, exhausting. There’s clear logic behind the decision to excise an interval, as there’s really no appropriate place to put one without losing the focus and gradual momentum of the piece.

However, after we have seen the new change in gear play out, Hall pivots us back to more familiar territory, bringing with it notable slump in momentum. There’s still a while to go at this point, and whilst the dialogue remains powerfully written and delivered with great talent, it begins to fall flat, bouncing off of the audience instead of being absorbed by them. There’s surely a tighter run in there; one that Hall, or perhaps Weise, could have streamlined a little to make a more defined structure and taut trajectory from start to finish.

By the time we do reach the conclusion, there is a lift again. A highlight of the entire production is Camae’s monologue, infused with so much fire and passion that it is incredibly stirring. There is so much pain, grief, and determination on display from Ndlovu that it will likely light a fire in the belly and bring a tear to the eye. It’s the production’s pièce de résistance, and of itself would make for a punchy and thrilling conclusion to the play.

But no, Mountaintop is not done yet. There is a little more to come, which, whilst not entirely ineffective, feels a little lesser in comparison, and is, ultimately, unnecessary. Hall tries to reinforce her final message by getting King to talk to the audience directly, but this registers a trifle too blunt. It’s as if she doesn’t trust her own writing to make its impact, whereas really there is nothing in the play’s final address that we haven’t already learnt and felt from what we have already scene. It’s a slightly deflated final note to end on, when Camae’s bravura monologue felt a natural climax.

Despite these structural and pacing flaws, you still leave the auditorium with a sense of enlightenment and emotional affectation that demonstrates how effectively Hall’s words – even if there are a few too many of them – have been executed by Edun and Ndlovu. Weise oversees the many challenges of the piece with a great sense of control, and it makes for a viewing experience that is, for the most part, compelling. It is evident that he is directing from the heart, and it is this emotional perspective and framework that gives The Mountaintop the power that it harbours.

It’s a story that needs to be told – one that needs to be understood, particularly emotionally – and by foregrounding this, Weise creates a play that has a unique sense of presence and poignancy that would make it a tragedy to miss.

Whilst occasionally something of a haul itself, with beautifully crafted performances Weise grapples the challenges of Hall’s quasi-historical text to create a mostly compelling and poignant experience that visits the historical and the political from an emotional perspective.

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