Thursday 15 November 2018

The Mountaintop

Curve, Leicester

13th November, 2018

The baton passes on

Katori Hall’s 2009 play premiered at the Theatre503 (with few more than 60 seats) in 2009 starring David Harewood. It went on to transfer to the West End, have a Broadway production starring Samuel L. Jackson, and beat Red, ENRON and Jerusalem to win the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Roy Alexander Weise’s new production is now touring the UK after playing at the Young Vic last year. The night before Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on the balcony outside of his Memphis motel room, Hall’s play takes us inside Room 306 where he was staying. After a few flirtatious exchanges with the maid who brings him coffee, King is made to confront his work, ideals, past and future in a taut 100 minutes which pushes the boundaries of the two-hander.

Weise’s production is meticulously realised. For instance, we see King methodically check the mouthpiece of the phone, the lampshade and the bedside table for bugs. George Dennis’ sound design evocatively creates the sounds of the cheap motel room to ensure the action is concentrated and rigorous. And in a moment of brilliant direction, as King says he’ll keep marching until the day he dies, he steps forward into the plume of smoke that maid, Camae (Rochelle Rose), exhales. It’s a beautifully subtle moment which highlights the pertinence of the line as well as presages an enigmatic aura around Camae’s presence. In Gblolagan Obisesan’s full portrayal of King, we see the man and not just a historical figure. We see him tire with the weight of his toils on his shoulders; we can see the fire that drives his life; we see his faults and his anger; and we see his peerless oratory powers.

Hall’s text is a creeping force of nature. At once mundane and extraordinary, a characteristic exemplified in both King and Camae. The opening moments of the play see King take a piss, order coffee and a pack of his favourite Pall Malls, and call his daughter to say ‘goodnight’. King repeatedly says ‘I am a man’; and that he is – father, preacher, sinner – but he is also a beacon of light, emblematic of great love and great suffering for generations to come. Thus, Hall’s creation of Camae is a perfect match for a figure as monolithic as King. Camae is an earthy woman with a taste for whisky, cigarettes and sex, yet when she unleashes a torrential hymn-like sermon worthy of the great man himself we sense that not everything is as it seems. Camae, like King, also has a greater purpose. As it becomes clear that Camae has been summoned to the motel room to deliver more than just coffee, we see Hall’s play turn from an intimate reimagining of a conversation in a motel room to something more ethereal.

The play’s final moments are extraordinary. Rose leads us through the years following King’s death up to the present day, circling the motel room which comes alive with Nina Dunn’s video design. Hall’s text gains a poetry and musicality as we see historic achievements and struggles in equality: from Harvey Milk to ‘If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit’, the Stonewall riots, the AIDS epidemic and 9/11, to Condoleezza Rice and the election of Barack Obama. Rose’s performance gains a great physicality here, and Rahja Shakiry’s set cleverly seems to be dwarfed against the play’s flight from 1968. In 2009, seeing the newly-inaugurated Obama must have given the end of the play a huge sense of hope. Now, in 2018, Dunn’s video pans out from a still of Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to Trump. ‘The baton’, indeed, ‘passes on’, and to quote another great American play, ‘the great work continues’.

The Moutaintop plays Curve, Leicester until 17th November before continuing its tour at Bristol Old Vic (21st – 24th Nov) and Birmingham Rep (27th Nov-1st Dec).
Gbolahan Obisesan and Rochelle Rose in The Mountaintop. Credit: Helen Murray

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