‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”
So said Bernard Shaw – or so the Internet says Shaw said. (The quip is widely attributed to him, but does not appear in his published works.)
What better place to get to the bottom of The Mountaintop, then, than at the Shaw Festival? Katori Hall’s 2009 reimagining of the last night in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life won Britain’s Olivier award for best new play and caused a commotion among theatre critics in London in 2010; it arrived in New York the following year, but was greeted by critical shrugs. Director Philip Akin’s new production in Niagara-on-the-Lake, presented in association with Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre Company, gives Canadians a chance to play tie-breaker.
The word on The Mountaintop is that it attempts to separate the man from the myth. Sure enough, we first meet Dr. King (a powerful Kevin Hanchard) on a dark and stormy night, imploring an off-stage friend to get him a pack of cigarettes – then closing the door to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and falling into a coughing fit. Here is the great civil rights leader in the flesh, worn down physically and mentally from years of marching and confrontation and death threats.
After beginning work on a speech for the next day, he orders a cup of coffee from room service, and a maid named Camae (Alana Hibbert) quickly arrives with it.
The two strike up a conversation, share a cigarette and discuss the movement, the limits of non-violence and whether the Vietnam War and poverty are separate, distracting problems or part of the same struggle.
During these early conversations, The Mountaintop seems like your typical brush-with-greatness play. But it is more theatrically adventurous than recent biographical works such as Red (about painter Mark Rothko) or All the Way (about former president Lyndon Johnson).
In fact, the contemporary American play that the The Mountaintop most resembles is David Ives’s Venus in Fur – another two-hander that takes place in real time and features a mysterious, lower-class woman arriving amid a clap of thunder to confront a powerful man. (It’s worth noting that The Mountaintop beat Venus in Fur to the stage by a few months.)
Venus in Fur is a cleverly conceived, stylish and tightly constructed play that turns out to have little of substance to say. The Mountaintop is more of a meander and has only a superficial conflict between its two characters to drive the action forward, but at least Hall is animated by a burning desire to talk about great men and women and God, and exactly how much progress the United States has made between 1968 and now.
It is overstuffed and underdramatized. And Camae’s final speech perhaps owes a little bit too much to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, but Hibbert makes it enrapturing – a high point in a performance where she struggles to find something real or ethereal in her underdeveloped character.
Hanchard’s performance as King, on the other hand, is captivating throughout. He delivers not an impersonation, but a humanization. And when he gets his oration on, he fully lives up to Dr. King’s reputation.
In the end, however, The Mountaintop ultimately does not do much to demythologize King. Instead, it turns him into even more of a quasi-religious martyr having his Gethsemane moment.
Who else but Jesus gets a chance to talk to God directly on the day before his crucifixion?
Perhaps that’s giving away too much, but it is worth noting that director Akin and his designers do a fine job of shepherding the play from the earth into the heavens.
In the end, the Shaw Festival production doesn’t resolve the transatlantic disagreement. The Mountaintop is neither a great play, nor a dismissible one, but has enough stirring moments to make a worthwhile night at the theatre.