Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain has already been adapted for the big screen, and in the process generated much conversation about queer representation in cinema. It was by no means the first film to feature gay characters, yet it’s often credited with bringing queer stories to mainstream movies.
Now it’s found a new lease of life, this time on the stage, with its world premiere opening at London’s @SohoPlace. Ashley Robinson’s adaptation is a more faithful and loving recreation of Proulx’s original story, bringing with it a tenderness that could only be found in live performance.
This Brokeback Mountain is a play with music, with the songs written by Dan Gillespie Sells. Just as Annie Proulx was famously sparing with words, so too is Robinson’s play. Instead, the music does the talking, highlighting the major themes and underlying currents of the story. Eddi Reader – wonderful as the Balladeer – and a live band comprising Sean Green, BJ Cole, Greg Miller and Meelie Traill bring the gloriously gentle Country refrains to life, complementing the action happening on stage.
It’s most noticeable when Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, spending the summer herding sheep on the eponymous Brokeback Mountain, first realise and act upon their feelings for each other. The accompanying music – ‘We Got Everything’ and ‘Jack’s Theme’ – fits the moment so perfectly that we momentarily forget the implications of two hardy cowboys falling in love in 1960’s Wyoming, and instead just see it as the beautiful moment it is.
When their time on the mountain is over, it would seem that their relationship is too. Jack goes on to marry Lureen, while Ennis weds Alma (Emily Fairn). But the connection between the pair is emotional as well as physical, and over the next twenty years the pair meet frequently.
Brokeback Mountain is primarily about the passing of the years, the opportunities that were missed and the pain that would eventually follow, not just for Jack and Ennis, but also their loved ones. Under the direction of Jonathan Butterell the whole thing moves at a calming and gentle pace. The first few scenes (set on the titular mountain) move so slowly it helps cement the idea of loneliness and monotony of working in such a remote location.
Tom Pye’s set does a good job of taking us from mountaintop campsite to a homely kitchen, and the various locations where Jack and Ennis would steal away for their romantic rendezvous. From the crackling fire to the rusted up oven, the audience feel immersed in this slice of Americana.
There are other characters; Paul Hickey plays an older Ennis who remains on stage throughout, watching the past unfold and no doubt regretting some of the choices his younger self made. It’s a sobering reminder that you can’t change what has come before.
But of course, it’s Jack and Ennis that we focus on. In the first scene Mike Faist is a giddy and excitable rodeo cowboy, faced with a stoic and largely silent Ennis, played by Lucas Hedges. As a pair, Faist and Hedges bring a wonderful chemistry to the stage, and Faist’s energy and natural charisma draws the audience in and invests them in the story. As Ennis starts to relax, so does Hedges and the character develops with passionate clarity.
Brokeback Mountain appears at first like a gentle and unassuming play. Step out of the auditorium and you realise you’ve just witnessed something very special indeed, as an audience we’ve been welcomed in to watch a delicate tale of forbidden love, and one that brings with it an expressive and stirring soundtrack.