The intimate surroundings of Derby’s Guildhall Theatre provided the perfect setting for a new production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, directed by Tom Attenborough.
The play is set in a dingy motel room in Memphis and as rain beats down on the windows, Martin Luther King Jnr – who was perhaps one of the 20th Century’s greatest orators – is struggling to write a speech.
The Martin Luther King we see, expertly played by Ariyon Bakare, is not the one that history remembers: he flirts with his chambermaid, he chain smokes and above all, he doubts his own ability. And separated from his wife and children, he even doubts his role in the Civil Rights movement.
For some audience members, this might make for uncomfortable viewing because the King they see is flawed and has moments of weakness. But the play also reveals something of the danger of mythologising historical figures who are ultimately human.
The action takes place on the eve of King’s assassination in Memphis and just before his death, he is given a glimpse into the America of the future. And despite the fact that the country eventually votes in a president of Afro-Caribbean descent, it is still one plagued by poverty and prejudice.
The play had just two characters and it is rare that you see such passionate performances in theatre. But Bakare and his co-star Ayesha Antoine, who played the motel chambermaid Camae, put every ounce of energy into the performance and looked visibly exhausted at the end.
Playing such an iconic figure as King could be problematic and there is a danger of the performance being too sentimental or weak in comparison to the man himself. But Bakare proved that he was able to deliver a powerful performance when he addressed the audience, as well as portray the vulnerable side of his character.
For more details on future performances at the Guildhall visit www.derbylive.co.uk.