BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN at @Sohoplace
“Dan Gillespie Sells’ minimalist score is the pulse of the piece. The songs are an essential narrative. A mood board and a close-up lens.”
Let us begin with what “Brokeback Mountain” is not. It is not a musical, most certainly not a queer musical. Nor is it a flag bearer for the LGBTQ community. Ashley Robinson’s ninety-minute play with music, based on Annie Proulx’s deeply moving novella, defies categorisation. It simply rests on its own uniqueness, to be gently devoured by the watcher. Comparisons to Ang Lee’s 2005 feature film should be avoided. Jonathan Butterell’s production has a voice of its own, sometimes barely more than a whisper, but one whose effects will rise above a lot of the clamour in the West End.
The story is one of forbidden love, framed within the memory of an ageing Ennis Del Mar (Paul Hickey). We are invited to remember a time and a place where being gay could very well be fatal. We are in a scrubland of back-country homophobia that shapes the destinies of two home-grown country kids; ill-informed and confused but wading, ultimately drowning, in bittersweet longing. Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges plays Ennis Del Mar, fearful and quiet, and ‘not much of a talker’, as pointed out by Mike Faist’s brisk and breezy Jack Twist.
They meet in 1963, both hired hands on Joe Aguirre’s (the charismatic Martin Marquez) sheep ranch. Sharing roll-ups and campfire banter, their laddish camaraderie evolves into a drunken fumbling which, after insisting is a one-time affair, becomes a lifelong passion – detached from, yet destroying their respective marriages, families and their own sense of themselves. Their presence is quite magnetic, but the onstage chemistry is not always strong enough to express the deep sense of longing.
The full force of the emotional landscape is brought to us through the music. Dan Gillespie Sells’ minimalist score is the pulse of the piece. The songs are an essential narrative. A mood board and a close-up lens. Greg Miller’s yearning harmonica with BJ Cole’s pedal steel guitar fill the silences with an emotional depth the dialogue can only dream of. Sean Green’s restrained leitmotifs on the piano perfectly underpin the plaintive vocals. Eddi Reader’s voice has a gorgeous purity, scratched by a smoky rawness that echoes the spirit of the protagonists and guides us to their hearts.
The intimacy of the play is captured, too, in Tom Pye’s thoughtful design, drifting from canvas and campfires to the chipped furnishings of Ennis’ home. There the story reaches beyond the central couple shining a light on the sad neglect of Ennis’ wife, Alma. In a stunning stage debut, Emily Fairn subtly exposes the danger that her husband has put himself in. And consequently, the danger for herself too. At its core, “Brokeback Mountain” is a tragedy of two people having to keep their love hidden from the world. But the repercussions go further, touching each and all, which Fairn brilliantly emphasises. Similarly, backing singer Sophie Reid, in a heart-wrenching cameo as Jack Twist’s wife, Lureen, brings home the aching tragedy.
“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it” intones Jack Twist, more than once. Fortunately, since the time this is set in, society has ceased to stand it and started to try fixing it. Unfortunately, however, the play’s desolate ending is not something that is confined to history. “Brokeback Mountain” is an important piece of theatre. Compelling and tender. Powerful but fragile. Gentle yet hard-hitting. And quite unmissable.
Reviewed on 19th May 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
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