See the breathtaking Olivier Award-winning two-hander about Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s last night on earth at Reading Rep theatre this week.
Last year, at a Q&A after a showing of Matilda the Empress at St James Church, a member of the audience put up his hand and asked why Reading couldn’t have more professional drama of that quality. He was fed up of getting on the train to London if he wanted to see theatre, he said.
It emerged he hadn’t heard about Reading Rep, which is not student dramatics, as some people think (it’s based at Reading College). Reading Rep is an award-winning producing and commissioning theatre company home to original local shows, like last year’s Christmas family smash ‘Alby the Penguin’, and high-quality touring productions of national dramas, such as last month’s ‘Carmen’.
That’s a worthwhile bit of backstory for this review of ‘The Mountaintop’ because it’s important to appreciate just the level of production we have in town this week at Reading Rep’s petite theatre on King’s Road.
‘The Mountaintop’ is the debut play from Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall and rumbled its way from a fringe show at Battersea’s tiny Theatre 503 to 2010 Olivier Award winner and a Broadway sell out with Samuel L Jackson in the lead role. It’s brought to Reading this week by Reading Rep, The Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Desara Bosnja with a production originally presented at the Young Vic.
We open in a mid-rent ‘60s motel. Skinny twin beds are topped with flannel sheets, muddy curtains cover the windows. It’s fifty shades of beige. But this bland motel room is one that will go down in history.
It’s 3 April 1968, and Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee. Inside, on a night beset by heavy rain clouds and thunder is Dr Martin Luther King Jr (Gbolahan Obisesan), who is equally heavy, paranoid and under the weather. He’s full of cough and bluster, full of self-doubt at the size of the crowd for his Memphis address that day, which was titled, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’. It would turn out to be his final speech.
Over the next 100 minutes, (with no interval, brace your bladder), we watch an innovative imagining of his last night on earth in this powerful two-hander, pitting Dr King opposite enticing motel maid Camae (Rochelle Rose).
Together the pair flirt, drink, bicker and smoke their way through a battle of wits, politics, philosophy, spirituality and legacy. Over their evening together King rails through what it means to be a leader and what it’s like to fail as a man. Camae calls on him to consider who he’s really speaking for, what the future could hold and how to know when it’s time to pass the baton on.
Gbolahan Obisesan is a warm, human and troubled Martin Luther King Jr. He has a commanding stage presence that hints at the reverend’s crowd-drawing qualities but draws out a softness we would never see in those black and white news reels. Obisesan shows us the flaws, self doubt and vanity at Dr King’s heart. His voice rolls with that deep, slow, rhythmic tone of the reverend’s iconic speaking voice without it coming off as impression.
As Camae, Rochelle Rose seduces both Dr King and us. Strong-willed but playful and sharply intelligent, she crackles with an electric energy that makes it difficult to take your eyes off her. Yet at her core we see something strong, but damaged, a grounding that makes Camae unafraid to tell a powerful man his ideas aren’t all that and his feet smell.
For a two-hander set in one static setting, I’d expected this to be somewhat of a bare bones production, but there’s a surprisingly impressive technical setup. Roy Alexander Weise’s direction uses tiny but incredibly clever technical devices to bring the oppressive, lifting or occasionally supernatural elements of nature into the room.
Playing to an intimate theatre, as Reading Rep is, these elements become all the more dream-like. The smallest flashes of light or rumbles of thunder take on monumental meaning. A beige motel has never looked more divine.
The emotive final scene is an excellent piece of visual set design leading the audience to imagine the world turning around us. We see references to Vietnam, Tommie Smith, Jesse Jackson, Rodney King, Clarence Thomas, the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of President Obama.
The play was written in 2009 and it’s possible to see how Katori Hall was asking us here: “have we finally reached the mountaintop too?”. Watching it today, the world has turned again and it’s clearer than ever that Dr King’s baton continues needing to be passed on. We’re still not at the mountaintop.
I went in to ‘The Mountaintop’ expecting impressive work and came out feeling like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. This is a breathtaking, high-voltage production that deconstructs what it means to be human, what it means to be a leader and what it means to reach the Promised Land in an imaginative, spiritual way, but without drifting into cheesy or saccharine cliche.
Don’t get on that train to London. Get on the Number 17 to Reading Rep and be blown away by a world class production here in town.
At Reading Rep until Saturday 27 October, shows are at 7.30pm. Tickets are £12-14. Book tickets.
Find it: Reading Rep is at Reading College, King’s Road. Reading Buses 17 stops outside.
Head to ‘The Kitchen’ building for the box office and pre show bar. The theatre is in the black box studio to the right.