Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Mountaintop, Nov 6, 2013 ****

By Katori Hall, Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, Nov 6 to Dec 18, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 6
Stars: ****
 Review also published in Herald Sun online, Thurs Nov 7, 2013 and then in print. KH
  Bert LaBonte (Dr Martin Luther King Jr) and Zahra Newman (Camae) Photo ©Jeff Busby

The theatrical strength of The Mountaintop lies in the performances by Bert LaBonté and Zahra Newman who create an intensely emotional, intimate relationship between civil rights hero, Martin Luther King Jr., and a fictional young woman, Camae.

The play takes place inside a motel room where King (LaBonté) spends a wakeful night smoking, debating civil rights and flirting with Camae (Newman), the feisty room service maid who turns out to be more than he anticipated.

Katori Hall’s 90 minute two-hander, directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos, is an entertaining, imagined version of King’s last night on earth in the Lorraine Motel, Memphis on April 3, 1968, immediately after his rousing speech about reaching the mountaintop and glimpsing the Promised Land for his African-American people.

LaBonté is compelling and credible as the fatigued, disillusioned King, giving him a lumbering physicality that contrasts with his passion, wit and eloquence.

Hall creates an ingenious, fictional, comic-dramatic narrative that portrays a side of King not witnessed by his adoring public; he boozes, smokes, seduces and trembles with fear that his life will end with a bomb or a bullet – as it does the next day.

Newman’s Camae is foul-mouthed, sassy and Southern, sashaying lustily around King as she confronts him with arguments that oppose his ideals of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance.

The first half is like a well observed slice-of-life that balances articulate debate with whip-smart, witty dialogue and amusing but sympathetic characters.

There is a bump in the script after the halfway point when a surprising – some may say silly – plot revelation shifts the style from the realistic to the fanciful and, for a short period, the ensuing flippant, comical dialogue undercuts the earlier strength of the play.

However, Hall recaptures the drama of King’s existential struggle in the latter part of the play with sensitive and poignant scenes as King faces his own mortality.

Camae becomes a more rounded character as she guides King through the night, challenging him and showing him that his dream of equality for black Americans – so emotionally expressed in his famous “I have a dream” speech – will come true in part.

In the final scenes, the fourth wall is broken as LaBonté prowls amongst the audience, delivering a final stirring oration that challenges the world of the future and is accompanied by a moving montage of news footage depicting African-American achievements, including Obama’s inauguration.

An American audience would probably weep and leap to their feet in passionate reply to the stirring orations of their civil rights hero, but King is not part of our political heritage so Australians may not be touched so deeply by his reincarnation in The Mountaintop.

Tsilimidos focuses the production on character and relationship and, with Hall’s spicy dialogue and topical themes about human rights, this is a satisfying and beautifully performed production.

By Kate Herbert

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