The world premiere of new play Brokeback Mountain – based on Annie Proulx’s 1997 novel, although many of us will be more familiar with Ang Lee’s 2005 film adaptation – has a lot going for it. The casting of Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges and rising star Mike Faist (most recently seen in Spielberg’s West Side Story) in the lead roles is quite a coup, and there’s a lot of high-profile talent attached to this production. Dan Gillespie Sells (composer for hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) has written the songs; these are performed by Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader and her backing band, which includes renowned steel guitarist BJ Cole.
On paper this should be a rather special production, but in practice we’re less convinced. However, we’ll start with the positives: there’s some fine acting on display here, not just from our leading pair, but also Emily Fairn impresses in the sadly rather limited role of Alma, Ennis’ wife. The venue, @sohoplace, affords an intimacy to the scenes which demand it; this mid-size theatre, arranged in the round, ensures every seat is close to the action. There are some pleasing elemental effects, including a real camp fire and some pretty snow cascading during storms. The music works well, too – this perfectly enjoyable collection of country ballads often augment the on-stage action and help smooth over scene changes.
This production contains some choices which we weren’t completely sold on, however. Brokeback Mountain is delivered as a memory play, with an older Ennis (Paul Hickey) present throughout, sparingly adding dialogue at a handful of moments. We’re not really sure what this device adds to proceedings, other than to indicate, for those unfamiliar with the premise, that things may not end terribly well for our protagonists. Although there are a couple of touching moments involving the older Ennis, we think these could have been achieved with Hedges as Ennis – we’re already expected to believe he ages 20 years over the course of 90 minutes; we could suspend our disbelief further if needed.
While the music is effective, having the band so prominently positioned does provide an overt visual distraction which is unhelpful at key moments. We regularly found ourselves being taken out of the action; this is particularly noticeable when members of the band take on roles of the play’s minor characters. We found the moment that Reader herself stepped out of the band and onto the stage as Jack’s mother particularly jarring. In terms of the staging, some of its strengths also work against it; a space like @sohoplace works perfectly for the intimate scenes, but it means that the scale of the mountain and the expanse of physical distances between these men are never convincingly realised.
Our main criticism is that the show doesn’t satisfactorily consider the key issues at the story’s heart. This is a tragic tale, one where societal expectations mean that two people have to hide a part of themselves out of fear: they never reach a place where they feel safe to live their authentic lives. There’s a lot to unpack – expectations of how masculinity should manifest; the assumption that both men will marry and have children; judgement of family, friends, peers. These are major issues which are likely to resonate with queer audiences, and yet they’re often reduced to a handful of quick, clunky exchanges amongst some rushed dialogue. A little additional time to consider these matters with more nuance would have worked wonders.
In spite of its issues, we still had a reasonably enjoyable evening with Brokeback Mountain. This story is absolutely worth sharing again, as it’s still as painfully relevant today as when it was written; there’s some solid acting to be found and a handful of decent tunes, too. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t all seem to come together satisfactorily – it may boast several individually strong elements, yet the end result falls short of expectations.
GAY TIMES gives Brokeback Mountain – 3/5
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