Review by Daz Gale
The still relatively new @sohoplace is proving itself to be a reliable source of diverse productions. Its fourth production since opening six months ago is undoubtedly its most hotly anticipated yet in a world premiere of an adaptation of the beloved movie Brokeback Mountain. With an acclaimed group of people attached in both the cast and creatives, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for this, but would the high expectation that comes with such talent be possible to meet? And can Brokeback Mountain continue @sohoplace’s winning streak and be another hit?
Based on the short story from Annie Proulx which is best known for its 2005 movie adaptation, this world premiere production has been adapted for the stage by Ashley Robinson. Set in Wyoming in 1963, it tells the story of Ennis and Jack who both take jobs on the isolated Brokeback Mountain and develop unexpected feelings for each other. As they struggle with their secret affair against their own married lives and a climate of extreme homophobia, we see the relationship develop over the course of 20 years in what is a beautifully intimate portrayal of what was at the time considered a forbidden love.
If the prospect of this premiere stage adaptation wasn’t exciting enough, the cast that were attached to it were another reason this production has been so hotly anticipated with Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist starring as Ennis and Jack respectively. Hedges gives an initially understated performance as Ennis which slowly ebbs away as Jack gets in to the core of him. In a subtle and nuanced performance, Hedges is mesmerising in the role, ensuring Jack isn’t the only one who falls in love with him in that theatre.
Fresh from wowing audiences worldwide with his turn in the movie remake of West Side Story, Mike Faist makes his West End debut as Jack and shows British audiences why he has become such a well regarded name in both stage and screen. A larger character than that of Hedges’ Ennis, Faist manages to fill the stage with bounds of charisma in a real earnest performance that has the ability to penetrate even the coldest of hearts.
Due to the intimate nature of Brokeback Mountain¸ to truly do the story justice you would need the two leads to display a strong chemistry. Luckily, Faist and Hedges are not lacking in that respect, showcasing their complex and conflicting feelings for eachother in a way that feels completely authentic. From the playful nature of their early rendezvous to the intimate way they touch each other later on in the play, the level of detail between them creates a multi-layered relationship with impeccable chemistry together.
Annie Proulx’s story has been gorgeously adapted for the stage in a way that retains the essence of the story and the best bits of the movie while making the most of its new theatrical approach. To that respect, Ashley Robinsons adaptation is stunning – beautifully tender and gentle in its approach, its subtle nature makes the quieter moments all the more impactful. The quality of the writing ensures the tone always has the desired effect from the several humorous moments early on to the gutwrenching of the plays more tragic themes.
The play is elevated through another form thanks to the inclusion of music. With songs written by Dan Gillespie-Sells, it uses the inspired touch of being performed alongside the stage in their own section with Eddi Reader a permanent fixture, watching the action unfold and singing these original songs to intersperse the dialogue. These numbers punctuate the story and create another layer of depth leading to a real emotional response in certain moments. Perfectly in keeping with the tone and themes of the story, the songs are as world class as you would expect from Gillespie Sells. Combined with Eddi Readers masterclass performances, this element becomes one of the highlights of the play.
The beautiful writing is executed to perfection thanks to Jonathan Butterells flawless direction. With some outstanding choices, it shows a complete understanding of the source material and how to translate it to a live audience. Having Paul Hickey remain on the stage from the moment the audience arrive and never leave throughout as the Older Ennis is an inspired touch that created a sense of poignancy throughout and foreboding of the tragic events that would occur later on.
@sohoplace’s in the round nature can lead to a lot of fun and innovation when it comes to the staging as has been seen in the three previous productions. The space is used to brilliant effect with glorious set design from Tom Pye transforming the action from the mountain itself to Ennis’ home with one beautiful special effect chilling the air and adding yet another layer to the story.
The ability to create something so gentle and delicate and do it justice on the stage is no mean feat but is carried out with ease here in a show that manages to be moving and tender. Its sensitive approach to the themes at hand creates something so raw and touching, it can’t fail to tug at your heartstrings and completely wreck you in its climactic moments. With themes of homophobia still so prevalent in todays society, it is a stark reminder of the atrocities that have taken place in the past and sadly still take place to this day. While some might have liked a bit more time dedicated to Ennis and Jacks wives and how they dealt with their husbands’ infidelity, by centralising the story on the two men it creates a more intimate version of the story that completely immerses you into their world.
With this production of Brokeback Mountain, the producers and creative team have managed to make an already well-loved story and lift it to a stratospheric new level thanks to a well thought out approach and detailed understanding of the source material. For me, the difference between a very good show and an excellent show is the ability to make you feel something. Considering I had the largest lump in my throat for the final portion of Brokeback Mountain suggests they managed to accomplish that effortlessly. Flawless writing and phenomenal direction are matched by the world class performances of its two lead performers in Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist.
While the phrase might go “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the team behind this production have managed to do the impossible and take a well loved story as seen in the movie and take it to new heights. Utterly fantastic on every level, Brokeback Mountain is a masterpiece.
Brokeback Mountain plays at @sohoplace until 12th August. Tickets from www.sohoplace.org
Photos by Manuel Harlan