Writer: Katori Hall
Director: Roy Alexander Weise
It is the 3rd April 1968 and Dr Martin Luther King Jr is in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis after delivering an impassioned speech in support of local strike action, in which he also appeared to acknowledge the ongoing threat to his life. The following day, on the balcony of this very motel, King will be assassinated. Katori Hall’s prize-winning play imagines a meeting that night between King and a maid, Camae, and the result is a powerful and compelling production as the two discuss life, death and everything in between.
Despite the subject matter, The Mountaintop is far from bleak and there are in fact a lot of laughs to be had as King and Camae spar and bicker over their differing opinions and backgrounds; the chemistry between the two performers is palpable.
Adetomiwa Edun is a charismatic presence, capturing King the leader but also King the husband, father, human – with all the flaws and insecurities that come with it. Hall’s script allows us to explore the man behind the iconic persona and Edun’s portrayal is assured and detailed.
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu is superb as Camae and a glittering advertisement for the Royal Exchange Young Company of which she was formerly a member. She shines in the first half of the play, full of flirtatious remarks and witty one-liners and it is easy to see why King is quickly charmed by her. As the play progresses however, the narrative evolves past the initial comedy of a mismatched double act into something unexpected and surprising. Ndlovu completely sells a twist that could come across as absurd, but in her hands feels authentic and moving.
As the Joint Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, Roy Alexander Weise has had a long wait to make his full directorial debut at the theatre but having directed a production in 2016 and a digital version streamed during lockdown, The Mountaintop is clearly a play he knows intimately. The space at the Royal Exchange suits the metaphysical elements of the plot and the set, lighting and sound design (by Rajha Shakiry, Lizzie Powell and George Dennis respectively) also evolve to capture the spiritual and ethereal elements that develop.
The Mountaintop was seen as a surprise winner when it beat frontrunners Jerusalem and Enron to the 2010 Best New Play Olivier Award. However, eleven years on, it is clear that the piece has not only stood the test of time but has grown in meaning and perspective. Initially performed in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as US President, The Mountaintop has a sense of optimism that chimes differently with an audience that now knows all that has transpired since. However, as Edun delivers a final, unfinished speech to an enraptured audience, there is hope that ‘the baton’ does indeed pass on.
Runs until 27th October 2021.