BWW Review: THE MOUNTAINTOP, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
It is April 3, 1968, and a great man is staring Death in the face; she just happens to be wearing blue and smoking Pall Malls.
Katori Hall's The Mountaintop invites us to step into the private life of Martin Luther King for one night - one that hangs suspended in time, between his achievements and his final breath.
The Mountaintop starts its 2018 UK tour at Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) this autumn. Co-produced by NST, Desara Productions and Reading Rep Theatre, and directed by Roy Alexander Weise, this award-winning, two-person play takes place in a motel room in Memphis, the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr meets an abrupt end on a balcony just after 6pm.
What follows is a retrospective exploration of Dr. King's life and work. As he attempts to settle, a maid appears with coffee for him; he invites her to join him, and they discuss religion, race, protest and class, bouncing off each other with wit and chemistry.
We see his paranoia, his fear of death and failure, and his love of his family. We are shown his simultaneous passion to lead the cause and a desire for a simple life. His awareness of his inevitable death is evident from the start, and when this subject is raised partway through his time with Camae (in a most unexpected way) he is still surprised, shocked and in denial, despite knowing it was coming all along.
With just two people on stage and one set, it's simple, yet very effective. This is a testament to the casting; it is Gbolahan Obisesan's Dr. King and Rochelle Rose's Camae who keep us captivated throughout the performance. Their relationship is completely believable and enchanting - two fiery characters running rings around each other until Camae's secret is eventually revealed. Then, empathy, emotion, disbelief and comfort. Both actors have impressive talent.
Obisesan's presence as Dr. King is a man driven by fear; a man who has found himself watched by the world, and now is suddenly facing what he's been waiting for. He is completely believable.
Rose's Camae is bold, bright and cheeky. Initially looking up to Dr. King, she eventually becomes the one with the power, more than just a pretty face, but like Dr. King, from humble - and not entirely sin-free - beginnings. This is all aided by stark yet effective design, which transforms a basic motel room into a space full of hidden surprises.
Combining the supernatural with a story such as this might sound far-fetched and problematic, but this production introduces it cleverly and with ease. Religion is inevitably a large part in this story, and the crossing of boundaries and the use of imagery is done tastefully and skilfully.
Weise's The Mountaintop fuses the new with the old - and not just literally through cultural references. 1968 and 2018 come together on stage through an exploration of racism, classism and sexism which can be easily translated and compared to modern-day political climates.
This resonant production emphasises the need for Dr. King's work to continue. The cause did not end with his death, and it will not end now; as the play reaffirms, the baton passes on, and on, and on, to the next generations inspired by those who came before.
A montage towards the end only underlines this idea further, both celebrating the progress ignited by Dr King's work, while also highlighting what more there is to be done, and how much further there is to go.
Although it tackles some of life's serious issues, and covers a prominent moment in history, The Mountaintop is also unexpectedly and brilliantly funny. We are taken from one moving moment to another by way of laughter and light-hearted humanity. There is flirting, crude humour and playfulness that grounds Dr. King and places this great man on the same level as us. The continual reminders of him as 'just a man' only make it clearer that anyone can ignite, inspire and incite change.
This production brings Dr. King's story to life with charm, wit, and poignancy. It is a skilled examination of the issues of racism that still linger in today's world; a reminder of the beliefs that spurred on the fight, and the work that must carry on.
With an astonishingly talented cast and a strong storyline, alongside great design, it is completely deserving of the standing ovation it received at Nuffield Southampton Theatres at the start of its 2018 tour.
Photo Credit: Helen Murray