Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – until 27 October 2021
Guest reviewer: Megan Hyland
Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is what happens when we examine our heroes at their most vulnerable. Taking place the night before Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in the dimly lit room of a Memphis motel, we meet the Reverend at his most fallible – trading cigarettes and witticisms with the maid, Camae. We see MLK as we’ve never seen him before, and as the night wears on, we come to find that perhaps there is also more to Camae than there first appears.
Adetomiwa Edun sparkles as the honourable Dr Martin Luther King Jr, managing to both bring life to the hero known to all of us, as well as adding his own personality and style. It is due to the commitment, intensity, and raw emotion that Edun brings to the role that we begin to dismantle everything we think we know about this untouchable historical figure and consider him for what he was – a man. Edun delivers his words with every ounce of fire and passion that we have come to expect from an MLK portrayal.
But what sets apart a good actor from a great one, is the ability to build the character up and place them on their rightful pedestal, before breaking them down just as easily. And Edun does this effortlessly, deconstructing the most well-known civil rights speaker in history in a way that has never been seen before.
Here to help him do so is Manchester School of Theatre graduate, Ntombizodwa Ndlovu, who stars as the captivating Camae. A relative newcomer to the stage, make no mistake, Ndlovu is no more a supporting actress than Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a TedEx guest speaker. She commands the stage with every second that she occupies it, and switches naturally between making our eyes water with laughter to filling them with tears. Her words are every bit as powerful as her counterpart’s, and the audience is drawn to her from the moment she steps inside the motel room. For not only is Ndlovu charming and exceptionally funny in this role, but she is also refreshingly cutting.
Camae is the perfect match for Dr Martin Luther King Jr, because she treats him like a person – and openly criticises everything that comes with that. The chemistry between Ndlovu and Edun is electric, and the atmosphere that they create on stage is unmatched. They put the audience at ease with their brilliant one-liners, excellent comedic timing and flirtatious banter only moments before they generate exhilarating tension. They play off of one another superbly, and are natural, believable – and most importantly real in their roles. It is a testament to both their skill, and the masterful writing of Katori Hall, who mimics real life so effortlessly and powerfully in her dialogue.
Because the performances are so real, everything around them becomes real too. For despite the minimal set design, we begin to visualise the room around them. It is as though you can feel the night chill outside, and the faded wallpaper of the motel room. The voices of Edun and Ndlovu transport us to another time, their accents perfectly capturing that 1960s Southern drawl. Though it is the creative team that have truly outdone themselves. They blend stunning visuals seamlessly with electrifying sound, creating some truly intense, beautiful sequences.
Two spectacular talents that undoubtedly have shining careers ahead of them.
Admittedly, at times the piece feels rather disjointed. The beginning of the piece takes a while to get to the point, though once it does it is an exceptional twist, and one well worth waiting for. The pace does pick up from here onwards, though later on there are parts of the dialogue that feel repetitive and verging on redundant. It begins to feel as though we are going in circles, though perhaps this is the desired effect as everything that the Reverend knew to be true crumbles around him. Whatever the reason, it runs the risk of taking us out of the piece and losing our interest, though Edun and Ndlovu always manage to draw us back. Perhaps overall, the script could have benefitted from losing 10 minutes or so to keep the pace, though altogether it holds our attention skillfully for a two-person piece. Katori Hall’s masterpiece is no easy feat to tackle onstage – a two-person piece, told in real-time, that jumps from hilariously funny to hard-hitting and powerful in a matter of seconds. Not to mention that it is played in the round and features one of the most significant voices in American history. All of this, however, the cast and director, Roy Alexander Weise, handle with grace and expertise. The Mountaintop is emotional, thought-provoking, and honest, and it showcases two spectacular talents that undoubtedly have shining careers ahead of them.
The Mountaintop plays at the Royal Exchange until 27 October 2021.
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