In 2009, the Memphis born playwright Katori Hall was unable to secure a venue in the United States for her new play ‘The Mountaintop’. Instead, she brought it to London, where it received huge acclaim for the portrayal of Dr Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination in April 1968. Now Roy Alexander Weise, the new Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, has chosen this blisteringly funny and timely play for his debut here, and launches the Autumn season with an absolutely stunning production.
The difficulty Hall had with this play in the US, centres around her portrayal of Dr King; rather than the hagiographic figure of grainy newsreel footage, we see King as a fully rounded human being with all the faults and foibles that entails. He smokes constantly, is unfaithful to his wife and displays a vanity and preening arrogance, true characteristics which are rarely discussed, and do not sit well in the American psyche. Dr King (Adetomiwa Edun) is holed up in a Memphis Motel room during a thunderstorm, he calls for coffee, and the maid Camae (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu) delivers it, along with insights and information that will change the course of history. Camae is an astonishing character, foul mouthed and sassy, she displays no reverence to King, Ndlovu investing her with the ability to be crude yet sympathetic in an extraordinary performance by this recent graduate from the Manchester School of Theatre. She is matched by Edun who by turns is inspirational, angry, reflective and finally resigned to his fate as King, a real human being, deified in his own lifetime and struggling with the burdens that such veneration brings.
It would be unfair of me to reveal how the plot fully unwinds over the course of the two-hour show, but the elements of Powell & Pressburger, Capra and even Dickens in the resolution are beautifully conceived and turn this extremely naturalistic portrayal into something far more ethereal and supernatural as the conclusion is reached. The writing is exceptional by Hall, not only with the breathtaking concept of the storyline, but in the stunning interchanges between both characters. Ndlovu gets the lion’s share of the humour (although Edun has the loudest laugh line), and it is testament to the light touch of Director Weise that such a serious subject can be seen as both hilarious and tragic. The conclusion is stunningly realised and brought me to my feet in appreciation of how powerful the medium of theatre can still be in illuminating serious social mores.
The play was written in 2009 in the warm afterglow of the election of Barack Obama, and has an optimism in the final oration, which is both inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure, imploring us to take up the baton of King and ensure racism is banished from society forever. However, with the death of George Floyd and the necessity of the BLM movement, King may be looking down and asking how much progress has actually been made in the ensuing half century since his death and where along the way the baton was dropped.
Overall, superb writing with a compassionate and strong message, delivered with humour and grace by an outstanding cast and creative team. The message will resonate with everyone who sees this production and the performances are stellar.
The Royal Exchange has a real treat for Manchester this Autumn. Playing until 27th October with more information and tickets at https://royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/the-mountaintop
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 30th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★