If you’re disturbed by the seemingly endless doses of cheap, hateful speeches from Donald Trump, I urge you to go to the New Vic for the perfect antidote: a brilliantly written and powerfully moving piece of theatre created around the honest, hope-filled oratory of its modern master, Martin Luther King.
The play opens with King returning exhausted from a rally in which he delivered his famous ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ speech, already working on his next. “America is going to hell,” he declaims. Then again: “America’s going to hell.” Hearing him repeat this opening line to get the tone just right, in the immediate aftermath of the mass murders in Orlando, the audience feels instantly, painfully, with him.
It’s pouring down outside the Memphis motel room and random crashes of thunder clearly spook him. The friend he’s sent out for a pack of smokes doesn’t return. He has a pee. He throws off his ripe shoes: “I got marching feet and we ain’t even marched yet.” Then he calls room service for a cup of coffee, even though he’s got a sore throat and should be drinking something soothing.
So far so very human.
The coffee is duly delivered by the motel’s night-maid Camae, fresh to the job. She’s fresh in her language too, and increasingly fresh with the famous and supposedly saintly ‘Preacher King’.
The well-put-together programme confirms that King was a bit of a womaniser. And that he was paranoid (justifiably) about illicit FBI surveillance. So you may have your suspicions about Camae and where the simple structure of the play – the conversation between these two – will lead. But I guarantee you will be surprised.
Daniel Francis as the Preacher King has found the perfect pitch between authoritative voice and vulnerable soul. Even as he grapples with his profound unanswered questions and work yet to be done, Francis’ character exudes the confidence of greatness. When he speaks about the strength to love those who will never love you back, we feel his weakness striving for transcendence.
Tala Gouveia’s Camae is the crucial ingredient in energising the chemistry between these two. She floats around the compact stage – a motel bedroom – with a flirtatious charm that teases all assumptions, then pokes and stabs at them with an uncanny ability to draw out the visionary. It’s a performance ultimately as electrifying -- when she steps out of the room and appears to circle the mountaintop – as the ever more threatening bolts of lightening.
If Francis and Gouveia are the active ingredients, the chemistry between them is ably catalysed by director Abbey Wright, who keeps it bubbling along at a perfect pace, controlling strong shifts in her actors’ emotions while allowing the reaction to build to its stunning conclusion.
The play, by young American playwright Katori Hall was first produced in 2010, when it won an Olivier award for Best New Play.
By John Hargreaves