The Mountaintop stretches time. Set in a motel room on April 3rd 1968, we anticipate 6:01 on April 4th. It looms like an approaching storm, set to break at any moment. On stage of course, the storm is already raging.
This play fictionalises Martin Luther King’s last night alive. It was written by Katori Hall and achieved unexpected success, wining an Olivier Award in 2010. Having had major runs in London and New York, this latest incarnation travels to Oxford from the Young Vic in a version directed by Roy Alexander Weise.
The set is simple and effective. You’re definitely in a not-so-nice motel room in 1960s Memphis. History has made it special, but its décor speaks to a life on the road, trudging from rally to march, fighting a ceaseless, exhausting battle.
King slumps in, coughing. He is agitated, frustrated and tetchy. His feet smell and his wife’s forgotten to pack his toothbrush. Then Camae arrives, bringing his coffee and setting the play alight.
Camae is a sassy hotel maid, wise beyond her status and not afraid to bring the arrogant Dr King down a peg or two. The actor, Rochelle Rose, is wonderful: strong, self-assured and scathing. The twist, which I will leave unspoiled, helps by giving her character the platform to unmask Dr King, but much of its power lies in her execution of that twist.
The tension rises with every crack of thunder. King thinks it’s a bullet. We think it’s a bullet. He jumps, collapses with panic, each time foreshadowing the real event only a few hours away. The flickering lights and booming rumbles work perfectly for this and the constant lashing rain only adds to the sense of confinement and claustrophobia. No escaping what’s to come.
Unfortunately King (Gbolahan Obisesan) deflates the production somewhat. Flitting between angry, despondent, playful and flirtatious, his character feels fractured and disjointed. The story, as it strays into the more fantastical, also makes King an increasingly flat character. And rather than chipping away at the myth, it creates an unlikable, confused persona.
The end in part redeems the power of the play. Flashing forward through time, Camae narrates the peaks and problems of post-1968 American history. Graphically, musically and in how she uses the stage, it is incredibly powerful. King then delivers a version of the man’s real final speech – ‘I have been to the mountaintop’ – to the audience. And thus, the baton passes on.