Katori Hall's imaginative picture of the last hours of Martin Luther King Jr will surprise some by being neither hagiography nor revisionist deconstruction of the hero. Instead, Hall takes the route of comedy and fantasy, and in the process may come closer to the man behind the heroic image than the more expected approaches could have.
The play is imperfect, but contains enough that is thought-provoking and enough that is entertaining to carry it through its 90 minutes.
(Since this is ancient history to many, a quick reminder. A minister from Atlanta Georgia, King became involved in the 1955 boycott of segregated buses, and the combination of his leadership skills and oratorical power, and the historical moment, moved him rapidly into the role of face and voice of the civil rights movement in America. He was murdered in April 1968.)
Hall imagines King the night before his murder, just after his final 'I've been to the mountaintop' speech. Hoarse, tired and dying for a cigarette and a cup of coffee, he encounters a motel chambermaid who will eventually prove to be something else entirely, but who attracts his and our attention even before her revelation.
As the antagonistic FBI made sure people knew at the time, and as history has somewhat veiled over, the married King did have a weakness for the ladies, and Katori Hall shows us the minister beginning the process of flirtation and seduction.
But the girl surprises him and us by being fully aware of what he's up to, not all that shocked by it, and able to play the game as well as he. Moreover, she is as quick-witted and facile of tongue as he is, repeatedly able to deflect him from carnal pursuits to serious discussions of both the goals and the politics of the civil rights struggle.
Indeed, one of the play's small weaknesses is that, at least for the first half, the maid is a more complex, surprising and interesting character than King, and he keeps threatening to retreat into straight man and feed to her.
Her revelation of her true identity - and I don't know how much to give away here - changes the nature of their interaction entirely, while retaining both the continued analysis of the man and the movement, and the opportunities for comedy.
Suffice to say that King reconsiders his accomplishments and his legacy, and in the process Hall guides us to a fresh and balanced - warts and all, but also with full appreciation of his greatness - image of the man whom history chose to be a hero and who proved able to meet that responsibility.
And while the final seconds (and final three words) of the play are absolutely predictable, I defy anyone not to be moved by them.
As King, David Harewood treads the tightrope of evoking a figure whose image, voice and speech patterns are well known, without resorting to mere impersonation. His solution is to imagine the familiar King voice and manner to be separate from the man's private mode, but a sound that he constantly slips in and out of, sometimes for effect and sometimes unconsciously, the actor thus guiding us toward the man behind the image.
Lorraine Burroughs repeatedly threatens to steal the show with her feisty, witty and eloquent chambermaid, and manages the transition into an entirely different character with skill and believability.
Director James Dacre slips only in allowing the balance between the man and the woman to waver in the first half, but succeeds in balancing the play's potentially clashing but always harmonious serious, comic, documentary and fantasy modes.
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
Review - The Mountaintop - Trafalgar 2009