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David Harewood On … Scaling The Mountaintop

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David Harewood is best known to theatregoers for his leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre (Othello, His Dark Materials) and elsewhere, while his many screen credits include Blood Diamond, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and forthcoming BBC drama Mrs Mandela, in which he plays Nelson Mandela. He is currently starring as another giant of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, in the premiere of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop at Battersea's Theatre503.

Martin Luther King made a number of fantastic speeches - every time I hear “I have a dream” I get tingles down my spine. But his second most famous piece of oratory is his “I've been to the mountaintop” speech, which he made in Memphis the night before he was assassinated. During my research I found out that he went completely off message that night - there was a bomb threat where he was speaking which prompted him to talk at length about his own death. Many of his aides were quite shocked to hear the amount of detail he was going into about his own mortality. And the very next day he was shot, which is astonishing. Katori Hall wrote The Mountaintop largely as an homage to her mother, who was supposed to go along that night, but because of the bomb threat she stayed at home - something she has regretted ever since.

The play is set in King's motel room on the night before his assassination, where he's visited by a mysterious character who forces him to confront his mortality, his legacy and the future of his people. It beautifully negotiates his faults and failings, exposing the fact that he was just an ordinary man. And it takes us back to the period beautifully - I was astonished at how much hatred King had to absorb. As soon as I read it I felt I just had to do it.

The only downside of the exercise is that we only had a three week rehearsal period. There's so much material out there on King but I had to make fairly quick decisions regarding my portrayal. We're used to seeing him as an icon, the leader of the civil rights movement, but in the information I've come across he was also a man of great humour, he was a devoted father although he was quite renowned for his promiscuity, and when he was examined during his post-mortem the doctor found that he had the heart of a 60-year-old. I think that was partly because of the stress he underwent. He was a man who felt a strong sense of duty to his people but also understood that it wasn't just his race to run. These are all elements that I've tried to incorporate.

Earlier in the year I was filming Mrs Mandela for the BBC, in which I play Nelson Mandela, another great icon. I had much more time to build up the character of Mandela, although I had a greater knowledge of the civil rights movement already so I suppose I had a head start with King. There are big differences creating a character for TV and for theatre – I suppose you need to be more detailed on film, whereas you have more creative licence on stage. The Mountaintop is great in this regard, going from Greek tragedy to French farce to modern realism; it really gives you the opportunity to play a range of genres in the same evening.

My co-star Lorraine Burroughs has been fantastic - she's extremely hard-working and talented and it's been great fun so far. But like I say, we didn't have much time to do the groundwork so we've had to work at an incredible pace over a very intensive period. I certainly hope the play will have more life beyond this run - I'd hate to work so hard and then have to kiss it goodbye!

- David Harewood was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

The Mountaintop continues at Theatre503 until 4 July 2009.


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