The Mountaintop

Theatre 503, 9 June – 4 July 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In this imagining of Martin Luther King Jr’s last night alive, award-winning young American playwright Katori Hall boldly combines hard historical fact and in-depth character study with a comparatively barmy supernatural twist. It’s a volatile concoction that could corrode the credibility of a lesser play, but which instead provides an already dynamic production with a surging second-stage boost.

The man in the King’s shoes is David Harewood, who seems to be aiming for a career playing inspirational black leaders (he’ll soon appear on TV as Nelson Mandela). Harewood convincingly recreates the booms, swoops and tremulous vibrato of King’s legendary oratory, maintaining the vocal cadence of a preacher even alone in the privacy of his motel room. He evokes a man consumed continually by a struggle he ironically believes he alone can carry to conclusion.

He’s matched and challenged by Lorraine Burroughs as motel maid Camae, who surprises King with her views – rooted in the same beliefs as his own, but a step removed in their conclusions – and by proving no mean orator herself. Her presence brings out King’s roving eye and patriarchal views to contrast his civil rights work, which makes for much more interesting theatre than a blindly reverent onstage beatification.

Camae is also the crux of that sudden supernatural gear-change, which, far from derailing the play, not only provides some unexpectedly surreal and comic moments (mostly involving one-sided telephone conversations) but also allows us to experience anew through King’s eyes events he didn’t live to see. Thus The Mountaintop is upgraded from period character study to a history with an immediate bearing on the modern world, drawing causal links between the life and death of King and the appointment of Barack Obama to the White House.

Written by Katori Hall

Crew includes James Dacre (director), Libby Watson (designer), Emma Chapman (lighting designer), Richard Hammarton (sound designer) and Dick Straker of Mesmer (video designer)

Cast includes Lorraine Burroughs (Camae) and David Harewood (King)

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