Tuesday 30 May 2023

Theatre review: Brokeback Mountain

Back to @sohoplace, the theatre with a name so current it's planning on upgrading to Windows ME any day now. In what, quite frankly, I thought was going to be a bigger event among The GaysTM than it seems to have been, the theatre stages a world premiere adaptation of Annie Proulx' Brokeback Mountain, the beloved gay cowboy story (they actually meet herding sheep, but there's no such thing as a sheepboy hat,) best-known for the Ang Lee film adaptation. In 1963 Jack Twist (Mike Faist,) an itinerant cowboy with dreams of working at rodeos, takes a shepherding job on the titular Wyoming mountain where he's paired up with the taciturn Ennis Del Mar (Lucas Hedges.) The two are mainly meant to work separately, taking turns guarding the sheep from coyotes, but on one of the freezing nights Jack persuades Ennis to share the tent with him.

They decide they actually really enjoy the highly creative way they find to keep each other warm, and over the rest of the summer they keep up a sexual relationship - but it also quickly becomes obvious they have feelings for each other.

This is a melancholy love story spanning 20 years, seen from the perspective of the older Ennis (Paul Hickey,) who looks back as the two both marry and have children, but continue to meet up for regular "fishing" trips. We watch Ennis' marriage to Alma (Emily Fairn) break up because he can never commit to her and their family completely, but his detached and pragmatic nature means the love of his life never gets all of him either.

This is a brooding, moody, wistful kind of story - all of which are other weays of saying "slow." Is it heresy to say I didn't love the iconic film, and found it dragged? Well be that as it may, this is an entirely different kettle of fish as far as I'm concerned. Yes, it's still brooding, moody and wistful, but Jonathan Butterell's production just feels perfectly paced, taking its time without ever dragging its feet. Part of the success is how well it suits a comparatively intimate theatrical space, and the surprising creative decision that proves essential: Ashley Robinson adapts the story as a play with songs, written by Dan Gillespie Sells and performed by Eddi Reader as an onstage balladeer with her own Country and Western backing band.

This proves crucial in terms of tone and atmosphere, as well as providing a link to the story itself: Not big on communicating through conversation, a lot of the two men's connection is created through sharing songs that hold meaning for them both. The music's a change of pace for the songwriter of The Feeling and Everybody's Talking About Jamie (although one recurring song did remind me of the verses of "Turn It Up") and Reader's voice provides real emotion and poignancy. The music's also never overused, turning up as background or coming to the fore as the scene requires.

Who knew Lucas Hedges looked that much like Prince Harry up close?

It all helps build a real heartbreaker of a story about missed opportunities and lives not quite lived. It's never overplayed, but there's a dark underscore to the story of the very real dangers of anybody finding out about their relationship. Jack harbours a wish for the two of them to buy a ranch together, maintaining an outward image as business partners. It's not just Ennis' reserved nature that holds him back from this - he knows people would see through the cover story, and has enough examples of men coming to a sticky end when the macho society of the time and place suspected them of being gay.

So Brokeback Mountain is a genuine and heartfelt tearjerker beyond the extent I was expecting, which isn't to say it isn't joyous in parts, not to mention sexy: There may not be a using-spit-as-lube scene as such, but there's an awful lot of Faist and Hedges rolling around Tom Pye's set in a state of undress, as well as walking offstage fully-dressed only to materialise in bed naked a few moments later (I saw Phill do a double-take worthy of a Moonraker pigeon.) And in a story where it feels like the emotional connection is the biggest breakthrough, the passionate kissing might be the sexiest scenes of all. For my money this is vastly superior to the film, deeply moving, highly recommended.

Brokeback Mountain by Ashley Robinson and Dan Gillespie Sells, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, is booking until the 12th of August at @sohoplace Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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