Writer: Katori Hall
Director: Abbey Wright
Reviewer: Matthew Bagnall
4th April 1968. The death of Martin Luther King. We know a great deal about King’s influence on the civil rights movement during this period but this play imagines a bold and creative version of events leading up to his assassination. The New Vic Theatre are becoming renowned for their innovative approaches to new writing and they don’t disappoint in bringing Katori Hall’s play to life. Premiering in the West End in 2009 The Mountaintop has been watched by audiences across the globe with its debut in the United States coming two years later. It is clear to see why this play has received such recognition in recent years; this isn’t merely an acknowledgement and celebration of King’s efforts, it gives a deeper insight into the man behind the passionate, poetic speeches.
Set in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, King returns visibly exhausted following his ‘I’ve been to the Mountaintop’ speech. He has big dreams for the future but little does he know what will happen in the next twenty-four hours. His call for room service introduces him to the seductive and mystical Camae. She knows more about King than he anticipated and soon enough a significant revelation is uncovered.
Hall’s writing is admirable. Her imaginative and abstract take on the preceding hours before King’s death not only reaffirms our respect for him but it also raises questions about society and the idea of ‘being human’ that is still relevant today. This is effective at the end of the play with a vocal collage that reflects the highs and lows of the civil rights movement to the present day. Hall also builds suspense at a suitable pace which keeps the audience anticipating what will happen next. Instead of a recreation of the factual events on the motel balcony, the play explores what happened on the other side of the curtain. This develops a personal connection as well as an exciting uncertainty in what is quite a bold decision to imagine the personal, behind closed doors life of Martin Luther King.
The beginning of the play does stagnate and with the wonderfully creative twists and turns which follow, you are left pondering why there isn’t something equally clever to capture our engagement at the beginning. References to his death before Camae’s big reveal are also too frequent with the play on irony reaching excessive levels. Despite this, the inventiveness in the latter stages of the play is extraordinary and may result in another standing ovation from the audience.
This reaction will also be for the exceptional performances of both cast members. Daniel Francis is authoritative and subtle and captures the passion and leadership we associate with King. Similarly, Tala Gouveia portrays the eccentric and excitable Camae in a delightful way. Her playfulness adds to the connection between the two and contributes to many of the comedic moments in the play. Her powerful voice also has an impact at key points; including the vocal collage.
This is another example of the high-quality work which the New Vic Theatre creates on a regular basis as they demonstrate the success of regional producing theatre. Despite some flaws to the play itself the writing is structured in such a way that the dramatic potential is clear for all to see. The creative and production teams certainly allow this potential to be achieved.
Runs until Saturday 25 June 2016 | Photo: Andrew Billington