Stage

The Mountaintop (Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre)

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What do the critics think of The Mountaintop? We review the reviews.
[box]01 Nov – 18 Dec show times Mon-Tue 6.30pm; Wed 1pm & 8pm; Thu-Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8:30pm; Book tickets[/box]

The low-down

A fictitious encounter between Dr Martin Luther King and a room service maid on April 3 1968 – the day before his assassination. Young American writer Katori Hall premiered The Mountaintop in London in 2009, before it went on to become the toast of the West End. It then opened on Broadway with Samuel L Jackson as the man who had a dream. Dr King (Bert LaBonté) debates civil rights and flirts with Camae (Zahra Newman) in Room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, where the real life King spent his last night. The conversation ranges from the playful to the profound, and reveals a side of King few saw.

Our Verdict

Something very special is taking place at the Fairfax Studio with this production under the inspired direction of Alkinos Tsilimidos. READ OUR REVIEW

What the critics say

In 2009, the original London production garnered fairly strong critical support, which saw it move from its humble beginnings to the West End. The Broadway production in 2011 got a mixed response. Australian critics have pointed out the similar flaws in the text with the MTC production; its occasional awkwardness, and the moments where it becomes too overtly sentimental. But the praise for LaBonté and Newman has been consistent. Consensus rating: 7/10
“The first half is like a well-observed slice of life that balances articulate debate with whip-smart, witty dialogue and amusing but sympathetic characters. There is a bump in the script after the halfway point when a surprising – some may say silly – plot revelation shifts the style from the realistic to the fanciful and, for a short period, the ensuing flippant, comical dialogue undercuts the earlier strength of the play. However, Hall recaptures the drama of King’s existential struggle in the latter part of the play with sensitive and poignant scenes as King faces his own mortality.” Kate Herbert, Herald Sun
“Where the MTC production recommends itself to an audience is in the extraordinary performances of Zahra Newman and Bert La Bonte. This is the fourth stage pairing of Newman and La Bonte in their young careers, and one wonders if the MTC programmed the show as a vehicle for the genuine stage magic generated by the two. Newman is fast, funny, nuanced in her humour and deft in her ability to make static dialogue physically active. La Bonte finds both the gravitas of greatness and the lower registers of a weary, good man aware of his own limitations. These are two of the performances of the year, and one yearns for a script that could match them.” Van Badham, The Guardian
“Whatever defects the play has – I reached my schmaltz limit 10 minutes from the end, and it’s a shade strong on US triumphalism and self-absorption – are more than compensated for by the charming flirtation that develops, the good humour, and the liveliness of the language.
Then there are the performances. Bert LaBonte and Zahra Newman are two very fine actors indeed (regular MTC goers will remember their brilliant rapport in another American civil rights play, Clybourne Park) and if all you care about is the quality of the acting, you must see it.”  Cameron Woodhead, The Age
“What was King like when he wasn’t preaching to the thousands? Egotistical? A philanderer? Driven?  Neurotic? A sell-out on West End and Broadway, Katori Hall’s entertaining script hones in on King’s personal despair in the hotel room, opening to a bigger picture perspective towards the close. Historical footage alongside the recitation of names of leaders and achievers is captivating. Bert LaBonte and Zahra Newman, the sole cast members, are quite something, navigating the gamut of emotional nuances and coming up trumps. Newman’s standing-on-the bed speech is bold and pithy (you go girl!), and LaBonte’s turmoil is admirable, with the final rallying call an uplifting close.” Lucy Graham, StageWhispers
“Hall approaches her subject with an easy balance of curiosity and imagination, of respect and playfulness. She genuinely wants to know how “the moral leader of the nation” (A. Philip Randolph’s words) can be a shameless womaniser, and how a man under constant threat can step up, again and again. Camae is Hall’s teaser, her angel provocateur. It’s an enormous credit to Bert LaBonté’s authority that we accept him as King from the moment he appears. LaBonté is more than capable of emulating the preacher’s oratorical cadences, as we discover in the last scene of the play, but it is his apparently effortless charisma that carries the character. That said, LaBonté plays second fiddle to Zahra Newman’s scintillating Camae for a great proportion of the play.” Chris Boyd, The Australian

Verdict

An intriguing, if flawed piece, lifted by strong performances.

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