American Katori Hall's new play The Mountaintop, about the final hours of Martin Luther King, transferred to Trafalgar Studios this week (20 July 2009, previews from 16 July), following its acclaimed premiere at Battersea's Theatre503 in June.
Starring David Harewood as King and Lorraine Burroughs as enigmatic hotel maid Camae, the play is set in King's Memphis motel room on the night before his assassination in April 1968. Directed by James Dacre, it runs until 5 September.
The critics, some of whom attended at Theatre503 and some of whom got their first glimpse this week, were quick to praise Hall's “imaginative” retelling of the great orator's final hours. Harewood was generally deemed to have Luther King's trademark vibrato vocal quality “to a tee”, even if, as observed by Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, he “doesn't much look like King”. And Lorraine Burroughs was deemed by most a “revelation” as his sexy sparring partner Camae. Not all were enraptured, The Guardian's Lyn Gardner finding Hall a playwright “ascending the mountain if not yet reaching its peaks”, but it seems fair to conclude that, with a clutch of raves, The Mountaintop is well worth the journey.
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Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “James Dacre’s outstandingly well acted production has no trouble at all filling the main theatre and ends up far from 'intimate' … When the maid arrives, you wonder how the civil rights hero will keep her there for the play’s duration without some tacky one-on-one development. But the ninety minutes unfolds with a mixture of conversational gambits and magic realism that soon has you in an emotional head lock … David Harewood doesn’t look much like King, but he exudes a tremulous authority and charismatic personality that must come somewhere close … Lorraine Burroughs’ gingham-skirted maid Camae at first provides the Pall Malls he craves (the aide never returns), bounces off his domestic chit chat on the phone with his wife, hints at his reputation for a roving eye and draws him inexorably towards his destiny on the balcony outside room 306 on the following morning … The climax is a sensational act of reclamation and fulfilment as the stage explodes, the actors buoyant on a sea of anger, blasphemy, passion, music and crashing sound effects. It becomes a big play after all, and well worth its transfer to the large arena, however uncomfortable the seating in the grim Trafalgar.”
Nicola Christie in the Independent (four stars, reviewed at Theatre503) - “The Mountaintop is an imaginative portrayal of one of the most famous men who lived, whose dream of equality made his 39 years of life resonate long after his assassination. While Hall doesn't give King his dream in The Mountaintop, she does give him another one; one that is wondrous, hilarious, and heartbreaking to witness. In this world premiere at Theatre503 … her writing gets the actors and director - James Dacre - that it deserves. David Harewood, as King, is going to be on screen in a new BBC drama as Nelson Mandela soon, and on this showing, it will be well worth watching; his mighty grip on character - and the swing between fear, humour and quietness - reminded me of Forest Whitaker's turn in The Last King of Scotland. His sidekick, Lorraine Burroughs, is beautiful, sassy and worthy of the company she has been sent to keep … The pair deliver from the stage of a tiny theatre to a small audience who watch their exchanges transfixed; these two are on fire. Katori Hall must be ecstatic that her words have been executed in the manner that they have.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) - “An American playwright, Katori Hall, has come up with a sweet idea - although, like certain types of confectionery, the flavour turns slightly synthetic the longer you suck it … David Harewood has Martin Luther King's urgent tenor to a tee. He maybe overdoes the vocal tremor a little, but we see a King who has manly appetites and a keen sense of inquiry … Miss Hall's depiction of civil rights leader King as a rake who considered being disloyal to his wife may upset some. This Martin Luther King even has smelly feet. In its politics, however, the play is decidedly more conventional and respectful … James Dacre's production has force. The basic plot idea is clever, Mr Harewood's King is a strong, likeable man and in this small, shabby hotel room you understand how that extraordinary voice must have mesmerised so many millions.”
Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (five stars, reviewed at Theatre503) - “Nothing short of a coup for Theatre503 in Battersea, The Mountaintop is audacious on many levels. It dares, most obviously, to imagine its way into a dark moment in American history … With consummate artistry, Hall interweaves fact and fiction. Down-to-earth humour nestles alongside flights of visionary transcendence. Via an ingenious twist, the play begins by contemplating a single point in time and ends by creating a vantage point not only over King’s life but over history itself – and how one man’s deeds can become a lasting legacy … James Dacre’s gripping production, punctuated by ominous flashes of lightning, creates a down-at-heel motel ambience to perfection and is blessed with two superlative performances. David Harewood has just the necessary aura of stern-jawed authority, catching King’s tremulous rhapsodic style and also a touching vulnerability. Lorraine Burroughs is equally assured as the mysterious interloper, flirtatious and clever, headstrong and curious … It’s rare to find writing this accomplished on the fringe.”
Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars, reviewed at Theatre503) - “The black American playwright Katori Hall grew up in Memphis, close to where King was shot. Her playful two-hander, set in a room in the Lorraine Hotel on the night before King's death, asks whether, in the years between the assassination of King and the election of Barack Obama, black Americans really have reached the mountaintop, or merely got stuck halfway up. This well-made and enjoyable fantasy is a variation on that old-fashioned theatrical staple: two unlikely people brought together in a room … Hall's light feminist touch and the mix of fantasy and reality keeps the mood lively, and James Dacre's production grounds things nicely in the everyday mundanity of a motel bedroom. David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs are outstanding in a play that marks Hall as a playwright ascending the mountain if not yet reaching its peaks.”
Ben Wardle in thelondonpaper (four stars) “Director James Dacre’s production is nothing short of magnificent … After initial worries that David Harewood’s King is a little caricatured with its 'I have a dream' vibrato, he reveals the man behind the national holiday - righteous and earnest, yes, but also self-deprecating, playful, vain and racked with fear … Lorraine Burroughs is also a revelation as Camae. I won’t reveal the twist, suffice to say you will laugh, cry and possibly leave the theatre a better person.”