'Brokeback Mountain' review – exquisitely delicate theatre that thoroughly breaks your heart
Read our five-star review of Brokeback Mountain starring Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist at Soho Place, with performances currently through 12 August.
Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-nominated tale about thwarted queer love in Wyoming, which was turned into a movie in 2005 (and, infamously, lost the Best Picture Oscar to Crash), has now become a gorgeously poetic “play with songs” at bijou venue Soho Place. This Brokeback Mountain is specifically not a musical – which makes sense, since the story is all about the struggle of these two men to articulate their feelings while surrounded by hate, prejudice and fear.
Instead, this sensitive stage adaptation by American actor and writer Ashley Robinson juxtaposes the tongue-tied characters with a live band and singer performing soulful country songs written by Everybody’s Talking About Jamie composer Dan Gillespie Sells. In fact, it’s a full-blown Jamie reunion, with producer Nica Burns and director Jonathan Butterell returning too.
In their memory play, an older Ennis Del Mar (an affecting Paul Hickey) wakes alone in 2013 – and with a taunting song playing on the radio, “Don’t Let the Years Get You Down.” He inhales the scent of a flannel shirt, and that propels us back to summer 1963 when he first met Jack Twist, herding sheep on the isolated Brokeback Mountain.
Initially, they’re an amusingly mismatched pair: Jack, the live-wire, fast-talking, reckless rodeo cowboy, versus taciturn, careful, stoic Ennis. But they gradually bond via a trickle of revelations. Ennis’s parents died when he was young, and his schooling was cut off when his pickup truck died. Jack is desperate for adventure, and to escape his family’s narrow horizons.
However, their choices are severely limited by their financial circumstances. While Robinson matches Proulx’s impeccably economic storytelling, he makes that element bracingly apparent. It’s there, too, in Tom Pye’s thoughtful design: minimal furniture and chipped paint, or just a thin tent and modest campfire amidst the bleached scrubland to ward off the elements. This is a piece in which absences strike you just as much as what’s present.
That goes for the emotional landscape too. Sexual attraction is stealthily built, with heightened awareness – when Jack pulls up his shirt to show a rodeo scar, or Ennis strips off to wash. Accompanied by the howling wind (in Christopher Shutt’s evocative soundscape) and an insistent piano note, Ennis lies outside Jack’s tent – that physical proximity achingly palpable. When the release comes, it’s subtly handled: a flurry of bodies within the low-lit canvas. It’s not about voyeurism; this is their sanctuary.
But it’s temporary: They can never guarantee privacy or security. Already, the older Ennis is looking around uneasily, knowing the perils of discovery, while the song lyrics shift from romantic to cautionary: “the coyote prowls.” Ennis’s memory of a gay man being tortured and beaten to death with a tire iron – and his father insisting he view the body – keeps him from ever committing to Jack. Although, like the best tragedies, even as you know how it will end, you long for a different outcome.
Both making West End debuts, American actors Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist give knockout performances. As Ennis, Hedges stores up every emotion in his body: when he’s afraid of his feelings, he punches Jack; when he’s separated from him, he doubles over in pain; and when they’re together, there’s a desperate hunger to his embraces. Brutality is often intermingled with intimacy here – that internalised homophobia.
Faist brings a similar blazing intensity to Jack as he did to Riff in the West Side Story movie. He’s always moving, always performing; it’s only with Ennis that he finds a place of calm. But he’s also poleaxed by the strength of their feelings: “You just shot my airplane out of the sky,” he sighs when they reunite and immediately fall into bed.
Emily Fairn makes a fantastic stage debut as Ennis’s wife Alma – confused, afraid, embarrassed, and angry about the failure of their marriage. It’s a stark reminder that everyone loses out when they’re forced into gendered societal roles, and unable to live an honest, authentic life. Martin Marquez ably supplies multiple characters, including the gruff rancher who susses out the boys’ affair, and Alma’s kindly boss.
All of these performances can be kept exquisitely delicate thanks to the deep well of emotion coming from the band. Eddi Reader’s voice is as rich, smoky, and earthy as the whisky that the men constantly inhale, and she’s brilliantly matched by Greg Miller’s plaintive harmonica, Sean Green’s lush piano, Meelie Traill’s sonorous bass, and the legendary BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar.
If only the shame, violence and regret depicted here was purely historical. It’s not, of course – and perhaps that’s why this remarkable drama, which agonisingly illustrates the consequences of love denied, so thoroughly breaks your heart.
Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place through 12 August. Book Brokeback Mountain tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: Brokeback Mountain (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
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