Stage

The Mountaintop Review (QPAC, Brisbane)

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If you get to the mountain top, you may see the future. Moses did it, and so did that other hero who led his followers to the Promised Land, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. But what if you see the future but can’t be part of it?  Moses died before he reached the Promised Land, and so did MLK, but maybe the point is not about the leaders, but about the people they lead. How important is the personal fate of a leader anyway? And what if you see the future and it doesn’t work?
Weighty issues for a 90-minute play by that at first seems to be a hagiography, which is what many people were expecting. We all realise that heroes can have feet of clay (or, in this case, socks with holes in them), but that doesn’t make them any less the hero. And if MLK Jr did spend the last night of his life in a seedy hotel room with a cheeky chambermaid, does it really matter? Like Jesus in the wilderness, he was tempted, but it’s not the temptation that’s the sin, but the yielding. And what if he did cheat on his faithful wife Coretta anyway? She didn’t darn his socks, after all.
But he didn’t, and in any case that’s not the point of the play by American playwright Katori Hall. He’s there, and he’s been to the mountain top, and his followers are willing him on, and if he’s full of self-doubt, it’s only the message that counts. And he had achieved a great deal in the 13 years of black protest that followed Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955 – segregation, if it had not totally ended – was at least now a major issue in American society, and the black resistance was taking centre stage.
The interchange between MLK and the chambermaid begins quietly, even suggestively, and sidesteps the segregationist issue, as it becomes a flirtatious dialogue between two people. But who is this chambermaid, why is she there, and why won’t she leave? She’s not an overt sex object, although she does make a great play of the magnificence of her breasts, and there’s no real reason for her to hang around after they’ve smoked the last of her Pall Mall cigarettes together.
Is she really, as she reveals at last, the Angel of Death, come to show MLK the final outcome of his quest? It’s here that the play, which has been plodding along sometimes unconvincingly, comes alive in a burst of techno-splendour that shows the full glory and the full horror of the ramifications of both the movement and the martyrdom. Lighting designer Ben Hughes, sound designer Tony Brumpton and media designers optical bloc come into their own with a splendid and quite terrifying display of apocalyptic mayhem. The walls of the set move backwards and open out into the plains of Armageddon, and MLK and the chambermaid Camae becomes hapless spectators just as the audience are.
I think the play needs this sound-and-fury display at the end, because the first half is very talky and a bit static, and the young actors, both NIDA graduates and new to the Queensland stage, have been directed in this Queensland Theatre Company production by Todd MacDonald to underplay their roles without the bombast that we might expect from these particular characters. Pachero Mzembe, in particular, doesn’t even attempt to play the Big Man. His MLK is an insecure self-doubter, and a much more attractive character than the volatile swaggerer we are used to seeing. Candy Bowers as Camae, the maid from anywhere/everywhere, is much more upfront with her famous guest, but she holds back and never quite jumps on his bones, in spite of all her body language.
My problem with these two actors, as it is with any players who try valiantly to get a foreign accent right, is that they try too hard, and lose the cadences of the sentences in their worthy attempts to get the vowel sounds down. The southern accent is all too easy to caricature, and for most of the time they don’t get past this level to speak the lines with any authenticity – all those upward inflexions and repetitive sentence rhythms can become very boring.
This however is an excellent play and production which is lifted by its singularly exciting technical effects. And the lovely twist of the conceit, that Camae is MLK’s personal guide to the afterlife, gives it an almost Dantesque effect.
[box]The Mountaintop is at The Playhouse, QPAC, until 16 March. Tickets are available at qpac.com.au[/box]

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