By my count, upon publication of this review you will have about two weeks left to see The Mountaintop. So stop reading, log onto The Young Vic’s website and get booking. When it debuted in 2009, Katori Hall’s play asked us whether, upon the inauguration of America’s first black president, the Promised Land referred to by Dr Martin Luther King Jr – in what was to be his final speech – had been realised. Seven years later, and this revival by JMK Award winner Roy Alexander Weise has reached new levels of poignancy – that for all the hope we had, Black Lives Matter is still being questioned, police killings appear in the press every day, and Donald Trump is a serious presidential candidate. It’s a tremendous, thundering, snarling, visceral, all-embracing commentary attached to an exquisite production.
The Mountaintop has always been a great play, even winning an Olivier Award for Theatre503 in its first outing. The play follows King (Gbolahan Obisesan) in his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, in the early hours of 4th April 1968 – his assassination would occur later that day. His only visitor is Camae (Ronke Adekoluejo), seemingly the hotel’s maid, but one who is very outspoken, who smokes the same cigarette brand that King favours, and doesn’t exactly rebuff his sexual advances. Who Camae turns out to be is a bit of a plot spoiler, so please read ahead at your own peril – she is actually one of God’s angels, come to collect King and take him to heaven. Hall’s script treads that fine balance of being part comedic duologue, part philosophical discussion, and part surrealist metaphor. It’s altogether a heady mix, that will have you laughing one minute, silently crying the next.
Taking on a real world historical figure, particularly one as reverent as Dr King, is a challenging task; usually we see impressions but not the character, the turn of phrase but not the thought process behind it. Thankfully Obisesan is magnetic as the great man, not only bearing a striking physical similarity, but being 100% convincing from the word go. He breathes new energy into King, allows him to be funny, to be weak, to be the human being that we have rarely seen him be. He is brilliantly paired with Adekoluejo, who proves such a perfect foil – if King is stoic, Camae is the wrecking ball knocking down his defences, questioning his beliefs, pointing out that he is as much a hypocrite as those he condemns. The strength of these performances holds The Mountaintop together where it threatens to derail; how do you act having a telephone conversation with God and make it so believable?
I have to draw attention to Weise, in what should be his big break into this most difficult of industries. The restraint in this show is superb, the precision in his blocking noticeable yet natural, and the performances he gets from his actors second to none. There are a few irregularities where the dreamlike style clashes with the dialogue, but this is nitpicking in the extreme. The blistering final moment where King is shown the ‘Promised Land,’ where we travel from 1968 to the present day, showing every event that has caused a discussion on racial discrimination, is the best thing I have seen onstage all year. I cannot begin to put into words how well it works, but the emotional release it generates in the audience is palatable. For the first time reviewing this year I threw myself into a standing ovation, tears streaming down my face, cathartic but euphoric, and with a renewed sense of my own morals.
Occasionally I worry I exaggerate when I review, but this is something I know – The Mountaintop might just be the best production I have seen this year. It’s fulfilling, exciting, completely fresh but also hugely, crucially important. This play has always been good, Weise’s take on it is exemplary. You’ve got two weeks.
The Mountaintop is playing The Young Vic until October 29.
Photo: Tristram Kenton