Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is a powerful two-hander set over the course of a single night, as one of history’s greatest figures confronts his own mortality.
This Dr King may be a man aware of his importance in the world, but he is very much still just a man – a man who practises his speeches while taking a piss, who has stinky feet and holes in his socks, and has his eye turned by a pretty girl. Gbolahan Obisesan’s nuanced interpretation doesn’t shy away from these contradictions: he captures King’s gravitas and intelligence, but also his flirtiness and his fears, his moments of pettiness and of prejudice – a preacher shocked (if a little delighted) not just by the maid’s swearing and swaggering, but by her articulateness and intelligence.
If Obisesan delivers a performance of charisma and magnetism, he is more than matched by castmate Rochelle Rose. Rose is simply radiant as Camae, the maid-who-may-be-more, who smokes like a man and swears like a sailor. Sexy, smart and self-assured, Camae is a nimble sparring partner for Dr King, one not afraid to debate his ideas or mock his stuffiness and seriousness.
Owning the stage with a tilt of her head or a drag on a cigarette, Rose is utterly compelling in this slippiest of roles, as our ideas of who – or what – Camae is shimmer and shift. Seductively mercurial, passionate and outspoken, is she a woman sent to save or to damn? An innocent young motel worker enjoying the attentions of a famous man, or a Government spy sent to discredit him – or maybe something more?
The pair have a chemistry as electric as the storm that rages outside the building, keeping them indoors. Director Roy Alexander Weise harnesses this well to hold the attention even as the play itself sometimes sags. Sharp, often very funny and not afraid to shake up audience preconceptions of its subject, The Mountaintop is also a wordy and occasionally unsubtle piece. Confined to one room, it’s necessarily static (although designer Rajha Shakiry adds some nice flourishes), and there are moments mid-way when the show loses momentum.
But, anchored by such strong performances, it recovers to build to a powerhouse finale that reminds us this is not some chamber piece from a past long gone, but a (depressingly) timely and relevant production about the challenges we still face.
The Mountaintop is at Northern Stage until 13 October, then touring.