If nothing else, The Mountaintop is a marvellous opportunity to see two of Melbourne's best actors – Bert LaBontéand Zahra Newman – showing off their considerable dramatic talents, making the most of a strange and in some ways rather thin religious fantasy about the last days of Martin Luther King Jr, squeezing every last charismatic drop from its imperfect plot.
The story is a fictional re-imagining of Martin Luther King’s last night in the famous Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The action takes place entirely in his small motel room – subdued and simple and very sixties – on the eve of his assassination in April 1968. He has just returned from Mason Temple where he delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address, the speech which concludes with the prophetic lines:
I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
Outside a fierce storm is breaking. Change is coming. History is being made. The energy and tension of the situation is palpable. King (LaBonté) is tired and anxious: the constant death threats and the pressure of leading the Civil Rights moment weigh heavily on his mind. Yet he is restless, too, alive to the great importance of his work.
It's an intriguing opening, well orchestrated by director Alkinos Tsilimidos, but what starts as a serious drama soon takes a sharp left turn, becoming a somewhat loopy adventure to "the other side".
Enter Camae (Newman), the pretty young maid who brings up his coffee. She is like no-one on Earth. Literally. Instead she is an angelic messenger from Beyond, sent to prepare King to meet his maker.
This is the story of a great man forced to confront his own mortality and the truth that the Civil Rights movement is bigger than any one voice, no matter how magnetic and inspiring. The story culminates with a wide-eyed King being shown a vision of the future, where his legacy is traced through a succession of heroes (and villains), suggesting, ultimately, that America's present, with its Oprah and its Obama, is in many ways the "promised land" King saw when he looked down from the mountaintop.
Martin Luther King Jr was, in the end, just a man, and here playwright Katori Hall emphasises his failings: his vanity, his many adulteries, his smoking and drinking, and most of all his fear of death. But she blends the these mundane weaknesses with a surreal vision – full of gags about what the hereafter really looks like – that honours his loving spirit and the peaceful doctrine he preached until the end: that all men and women are equal, that they are all sacred, and all free.
It's a good thing to see different stories on stage at the MTC. After the South African Solomon and Marion earlier this year, The Mountaintop makes 2013 a better-than-average season for main-stage diversity. Whether the play in and of itself is especially profound or even very well-made is another question. Some of it is kind of inspired. The image of the Christian God as a black-as-midnight goddess is sort of attractive, and the portrayal of King as a man willing to argue the toss with the Creator herself is both funny and perceptive. But much of this play is emotional eye-wash and cack-handed sloganeering. Is there a genuine spirituality in this work, or is it just the kitschiest kind of Americana?
Still, these are two performances worth savouring, brim with sensitive details and a flirtatious energy, giving the play a special speed and clarity. For pride, compassion, agony and fierce determination, we couldn't have asked for interpretations more memorable.