The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop
By Katori Hall. Melbourne Theatre Company (Vic). Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne. Director: Alkinos Tsilimidos. Set and Costume Design: Shaun Gurton. Lighting Design: Matt Scott. Composer and Sound Design: Tristan Meredith. 6th November – 18th December, 2013

On a long stormy night in 1968, Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr (Bert LaBonte) is holed up in his Memphis hotel room, weary, alone and downhearted. After years of preaching, ‘testifying’ and advocating for an end to racial inequality what does he have to show for it? Camae, a maid (Zahra Newman), arrives with coffee and the evening plunges into a series of revelations, confessions and surprises.

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.

The Lorraine Motel locale, the site of King’s assassination, is constructed on a rotating disc, enabling a 180-degree pivot. Props excel themselves with magical effects including self-lighting cigarettes and flowers growing through the floor. Lighting is quite a feature, including a wonderful thunderstorm, flickering lamps and a concluding monologue with the house lights up.

Projection was the only disappointment. With visibility cut adversely by the top of the set, the historical footage could not be fully appreciated.

Public interest in The Mountaintop, 2010 Olivier Award winner for Best New Play, has led to an extended MTC season in the cosy Fairfax Studio. It runs for 90 minutes without interval. Worthy reflections on an iconic figure, who was only human like the rest of us.

Lucy Graham

Image: Bert LaBonté (Dr Martin Luther King Jr) and Zahra Newman (Camae) © Jeff Busby

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