Chris Eldon Lee reviews “The Mountaintop”, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme till Saturday 25th June.
The world knows that Martin Luther King was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis Tennessee on April 4th 1968. What no one is sure of is exactly how he spent his final hours. So the black writer Katori Hall has imagined them for us.
King has just given his stirring “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech in which he laid out the prospect of a promised land of equal rights. But he also, unexpectedly, contemplated his own demise with the words “I may not get there with you?” Did he sense his death was only hours away?
Back is his motel, Hall has him call room service and a bright and playful maid breezes in. It’s her first day on the job and, strangely equipped with tomorrow’s newspaper, she’s soon dropping clues that she might be more than she seems. “You don’t know who you’re messing with. I’m bigger than the FBI”.
The two diverse characters have much in common. Both seem condemned to clearing up other people’s messes. Both desire freedom. But both are scared of what is about to unfold.
Hall’s script is full of arresting and crazy ideas. It darts around; firing off random Exocets on race issues, to accompanying claps of threatening thunder.
It’s a chaotic and clunky but deeply challenging assembly which would be difficult to handle but for some powerfully decisive direction (from Abbey Wright) and two absolutely towering performances.
Playing King, Daniel Francis is every inch the icon he needs to be. We do see his chauvinist, womanising side too; but when his vocal register rises to rhetoric, he’s a dead ringer. He paces the room, prophetically rehearsing the “America Has Gone to Hell” speech he will never deliver. It’s actually a frighteningly good portrayal. I felt I was in the presence of King himself.
All of which presents Tala Gouveia with the challenge of her career and I was physically thrilled by the way she conquered it. Her range is impressive. She cheekily pulls a whiskey flask from her bra and gets stuck into a feather-flying pillow fight with the great man. Yet, at the play’s climax, she too proves to be an extraordinary orator – as she takes King to his Mountaintop and shows him the future his life’s work has prepared. Circling the stage she delivers – to King’s growing amazement – a litany of black achievers who will follow him; Colin Powell, Condoleessa Rice and, of course, America’s first black president.
All this follows her bombshell. And if you are seeing the play tonight, you might want to hum the national anthem for a moment or two to blot out my spoiler. For the lowly maid is an angel, come to take King to Heaven. And this – for me – is where the play becomes awkwardly disrespectful.
I’m not sure an Angel of The Lord would spread her legs for a Man of God. And the device where she calls God on the house phone (dialling an extraordinarily long number) so King can plead for more time, belittles his memory and momentarily cheapens the play.
But there’s bound to be a dud or two in a box of fireworks and overall this production is an absolute cracker. When King reached his Mountaintop, I was right there with him. And, believe me, it’s well worth the climb.
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