Brokeback Mountain, @sohoplace, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended

Review

Brokeback Mountain

3 out of 5 stars

Though impressively atmospheric, this stage version of Annie Proulx’s queer love story is totally overshadowed by the classic Ang Lee film

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Time Out says

How do you make ‘Brokeback Mountain’ without an actual mountain?

That’s kind of the problem with this stage adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 gay romance. In both the original short story and Ang Lee’s hugely successful 2005 movie version, the vast empty spaces of Wyoming form a brooding backdrop to the tortured love affair between Jack and Ennis, two farm hands who fall into each other's arms as young men, and spend the next 20 years failing to quit each other.

You can’t do vast empty spaces in a mid-sized theatre. And even if you could, that’s not the route Jonathan Butterell’s intimate production of Ashley Robinson’s adaptation has taken. 

Although there’s a good stab at the great outdoors in Tom Pye’s set - fake snow, a real campfire – the USP here is the presence of ‘80s pop star and Americana enthusiast Eddi Reader with her live band. The songs are by ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ man Dan Gillespie Sells, but it’s definitely not a musical, and the lyrics wilfully avoid direct comment on the action. And yet the reverb-heavy vocals and instrumentation beautifully convey the sense of America’s vast expanses, particularly the contributions from pedal steel legend BJ Cole, whose live presence will probably get a small subset of music nerds hotter under the collar than any cowboy on cowboy action. 

If Jack Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger’s film versions of Jack and Ennis inevitably feel definitive, then young US actors Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges make decent fists of the roles. Faist, who beguiled in Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’, is particularly magnetic as Jack, playing him as a free spirit who drifts through life fecklessly, but blissfully unbound by the prejudices and repressions of those around him. Hedges hits his marks as the more tortured Ennis, whose emotional inarticulacy and difficulty in imagining a future with Jack essentially dooms them. And there’s nice work from Emily Fairn as Ennis’s wife Alma, who is as much a victim of Ennis’s inability to own up to who he is as either of the men.

What it sorely lacks is a sense of a world beyond the men’s encounters. They seem to exist in a timeless, Americana-tinged no place, with little sense of either man ageing or of time passing between their encounters. Paul Hickey is cast as an older Ennis, but the role feels almost entirely wasted as he doesn’t have anything to do beyond look on sadly. There’s also little real sense of anyone’s inner life – we understand something of Ennis’s torment by watching his marriage break down, but essentially Robinson’s text provides us 90 minutes of men failing to talk about their feelings.

The same could be said of the film, except it’s 45 minutes longer, and has that magnificently brooding cinematography to both reflect the men’s emotional state and also root their story in a time and place. The music here is a lovely touch, but really it’s an atmospheric flourish rather than the heart and soul of the production, which really amounts to an efficient retelling of Proulx’s story. If there had been a lot more music it might have felt more daring and opened up new ways into the characters. But ultimately it isn’t enough to help the play step out of the film’s all-encompassing shadow.

Details

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Price:
£29.50-£85. Runs 1hr 30min
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