Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On 4 April, 1968, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last speech. We know that on that night he went to stay at a motel where he is believed to have formed an intimate relationship with a maid there. The following day, he was assassinated on his balcony.
Katrori Hall came at this history with an imaginative gaze, creating a tale of that night based on what we know about the personalities of those two figures. It’s a strange mix of fictionalisation and reality which she turned into a play called The Mountaintop. Now, it hasn’t yet been released here in Melbourne, but had a humble location in Theatre 503 in London before being noticed, and moved on to the West End to receive critical acclaim. I hear good things about it, and it sounds like a fascinating idea, but it’s hard to really appreciate this if the cast are being so secretive about the plot. Under the direction of Alkinos Tsilimidos, Melbourne Theatre Company’s Bert LaBonté and Zahra Newman are bringing this work to the city in November, and I got them both to open up where they could.
Newman, as polite and good natured as she was, went on to tell me about just as much as a PR release will on this point: “It is a playwright musing on ‘what if’, you know, or what would it have been like for – you know, no one actually knows.” I turned my hand over to LaBonté: if it was fiction, did he feel he was playing a character or King himself? When so little is known about King’s personal life, how can you enter that mindset?
Maybe it was the rehearsals doing it, but LaBonté answered back in another American slanted voice: “I feel like I’m playing a real person and I feel like the message that the playwright has given in the play is very much based Dr. King’s own thoughts and ideas about where society needs to be and needs to grow, and his struggles and his battles through that whole period of time, and there’s a lot of factual information in the play as well about things that had happened and trials and tribulations. I feel like I’m playing the man. I feel like I’m playing the man going through – not knowingly – the last couple of hours of his life and where he might have been at that point in time. At times it can be kind of overwhelming when you’re standing there and you’re saying particular words and you can only imagine what that would have felt like for him to say, and it can be really beautiful”.
And then I hear a few small details, and it’s cast on a stormy night. There are incredibly intimate scenes which build up to its climax with added flairs. King himself seems to be on a pedestal of greatness, regardless of the possible affair. One might think the play was in danger of dehumanising their key star through the dramatic necessities of a play. However, LaBonté has his only feelings about the role here. “The play makes him more like one of us. Without giving anything away, you’ll see moments of the man that we knew and we witnessed and we have footage of now, but the play, most of the time, is about the man not many people got to see – the human being not many people got to see – as opposed to the ‘superstar’”.
It’s a superstar sized pair of shoes to be filled by an actor, and LaBonté admits that he didn’t take on the role without a sense of daunting. “If someone asks you to play Martin Luther King, there’s a pretty simple answer to that one,” he says with a laugh before going into detail. “It was a quick, ‘Yes’, and then it was a, ‘Oh, hang on. Ahhhh… No, of course. Yes, of course I can do that.’ I mean, it’s a huge honour and a privilege and … I’ve gone through the whole scale of crapping my pants, but it was a no-brainer. When I read the script – I read the script over a year ago – and I loved the message in the story. When I knew it was going to be with Zahra, I had no qualms the whole time with taking it on.”
For co-star Newman, it was entirely about the merit of the script itself: “… [R]eading the script, it’s very playful. When you read it, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, I really want to be doing that.’ I really … want to be engaged in that story. So for me that was the biggest part in taking it on. And also, knowing that Bert would be a part of it and knowing that we have a social and a personal relationship just kind of blends itself to making something like doing an intense two-hander about a famous public figure – the friendship that we have – makes doing something like that much easier, and makes it fun to kind of embark on”.
Newman herself has just come off of a successful run of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and admits that it has been a big change in gears moving into this play. “I think the biggest shift really is the shift in energy and how to focus energy … The Cherry Orchard was such an ensemble piece and that was a large focus in how we made the work and ultimately what ended up being on stage was very much driven by the ensemble and having a group energy. This project, The Mountaintop, is more refined and honed. In this one you have to have laser precision in where you direct your energy … The Mountaintop [has] more given circumstances, more specifics in terms of context, time, place, just where these characters are, how they speak, there’s a lot more guidelines. It is quite a different character. This character’s a lot more fiery and spicy. I’d say they’re a lot more in control of their sexuality than Varia [her previous character] was.”
LaBonté himself has transferred from screen time on ABC’s Middle Class Bogan and playing Rupert. “The whole thing’s been a big transition for me,” he tells me. “Like Zahra was saying, we were both in quite large ensemble casts, in kind of long, muscular types ways. But then we come in to this, which is a lot more intimate, and … the intensity factor certainly ramps up ten-fifteen degrees, because it’s just the two of us on stage and it’s ninety minutes and it’s condensed and it’s got to run at a certain ferocity so that it can continue to build and build and build into the climax of the play”.
Little in the nature of context to work with, but there certainly seems to be a lot of secrets hiding in the periphery. All I can say is that it’ll be interesting to see the answers described on stage when we see the play open on November 6.