It can surely be no coincidence that this month has seen two back-to-back productions of Katori Hall’s Olivier award-winning 2010 play The Mountaintop. A two-hander that imagines the behind-closed-doors last night of Martin Luther King’s life in a plaintive Memphis hotel room in 1968, it is seeped with significance, perhaps even more so today than on its debut. Then, with Obama recently having taken up residence in the Whitehouse, it was a clarion call to not rest on one’s laurels. Today, in the face of Black Lives Matter, rising post-Brexit xenophobia and large swathes of the US electorate’s fatal attraction to Trump, it feels a more urgent cry than ever to be on the right side of history.
And, in the hands of bright young director Roy Alexander Weise, its whip-smart dialogue and dazzling tonal dexterity are really allowed to let rip. Hall’s skill – and the great success of The Mountaintop – resides in her effortless mingling of the sublime and the ridiculous. Here, the God-like King is a womaniser, a hypocrite, an egocentric, a depressive with smelly feet and much more. But the play’s not out to knock him off pedestal because, as the man himself said: he’s just a man. He is a great man.
We get to the (imagined) heart of the matter – to the murky, universal truth that greatness and fallibility are flipsides of the same human coin. Really, nobody is perfect, which is what makes us so fantastically human and exciting and interesting. We also get a penetrating look at the troublesome nature of leadership. Who would do it? Is the not the very fact that some strive to change the world an indicator of their essential egotism? Here, King is at once supremely arrogant and capable of genuine loving in the face of hatred. This is the curtain that Hall affectionately pulls back as she probes around inside the mind of this man – a man who changed the world but also hollers after his cigarettes and hits on his chambermaid.
That’s not to say Dr Martin Luther King gets the lion’s share of the limelight. Chambermaid Camae is gives as good as she gets, and is not quite what she first seems. Far from being a talking head for King to bounce ideas off, she fully fleshed out and hyper-real. And, by the time she fully stretches her wings with her preacher-parodying ‘fuck the whites’ speech, she is in serious danger of stealing the show. Ronke Adékoluejo’s intelligence, warmth and charisma breathes life into her firecracker comebacks. And in her sassy hands, the play truly takes flight, as the pair stalk each other around the room engaged in an endless verbal jousting match. Gbolahan Obisesan as King is the image of the man, dancing between gravitas, silliness and rage with elegant ease while steering well clear of the cliff-edge of caricature.
The almost-floating stage (Rajha Shakiry) is downlit in an etheral blue, and the dowdy 60s tones of the twin room melt wonderfully into the Young Vic’s trademark plywood – which is later put to spectacular use with Nina Dunn’s video newsreel – conjuring the awkward instant intimacy of being in a hotel room with a stranger. In the confined space of the Clare, it makes the perfect playground for the dissonance of this play.
If the pace of The Mountaintop flags a little after the breakneck opening, it only serves to highlight the crescendo of Camae’s poetic monologue, and King’s emotive final words, which feel horribly and beautifully urgent as the theatre space giddly transforms.
That so much fun, seriousness, intelligence and emotion is packed seamlessly into 1hr 40mins is an considerable achievement. A feeling of warmth and passion for the play seeps through this whole production. In The Mountaintop, Weise may have found his perfect play, but from the style, humanity and understanding on show here, he looks set to get his hands on many more.
The Mountaintop is on until 29th October 2016 at the Young Vic. Click here for more details.