When the film Brokeback Mountain first appeared almost 20 years ago in 2005 it seemed like a revolution, two mainstream Hollywood names appearing in a film about a tender same sex love story between cowboys in the 1960s. Two decades on and that has all changed for the better. But the stage has always been way ahead of cinema in the presentation and acceptance of love in all its forms, and in a market spilling over with screen to stage transfers of largely 1980s and 90s films turned into big budget theatre musicals, it is a joy to see the intimacy and sensitivity of Ashley Robinson’s world premiere production of Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place which also marks the West End debuts of Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges. Alive with the tragedy of a love that can never be, Jonathan Butterell’s production will slowly break your heart.
“If you can’t fix it, you gotta take” is the sentiment that follows lovers Ennis and Jack through the wild passion of their early love affair and onto a more complicated existence as their lives away from each other over twenty years conspire to take them far beyond the simple solitude and contentment they found one summer on Brokeback Mountain. And while this production gives a clear sense that these men cannot be together openly – the restrictions of the era and the life-threatening beatings that gay men in this story are reported to suffer – the power in Robinson’s adaptation lies in minimising the external noise and focusing on the inability of Ennis and Jack to understand their feelings for one another and overcome an innate fear of what it might mean to be together, a chance for happiness they all but sacrifice as a result.
The audience knows from the start that there is a tragedy in this love story, told from the perspective of the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) who wakes alone, disheveled and reaching for a bottle, remembering the days of his youth. Robinson makes this an unspoken recognition, a character who stalks the stage but never narrates, lingering meaningfully on the edges of his own memories but only acknowleding who he is with a look at his younger self as the play begins. Its subtle but neatly done, and one of Robinson’s strongest gifts here is to recognise the moments when words are not enough, the playwright getting out of the way of the actors and giving them the silences to fill instead. In a text that is already quite spare, offering only the bare essentials, building that cumulative emotional impact in Brokeback Mountain requires a fine balance between different kinds of creative input and this company has found it.
The promotional text makes it clear this is based on Annie Proulx’s short story and not the film, but there is an unavoidably cinematic quality to this stage adaption. Running at only 90-minutes (45-minutes shorter than the movie) it is unusual for theatre to be structured around a series of short scenes that are more common on screen where the camera framing and use of close-ups can elicit a great deal from a few seconds of film. On stage that is harder to achieve particular for a story that spans so many years in the character’s lives, so Brokeback Mountain must build momentum and investment, toning down the existence of other characters to focus more exclusively on Ennis and Jack’s trajectory both together and apart, as well as savouring the longer term impact of their relationship in place of the instant gratification that film can offer at every encounter.
As a result, there are no lingering looks when the pair first meet and head up the mountain to tend sheep for a few weeks, instead there is a slightly frosty restraint emanating from Ennis in which the men barely exchange a word as they pass each other at their camp. Their first night together seems to happen from nowhere, as much a surprise to them as the audience, but it unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion that they give free reign to. Cinema would likely play a scenario like this quite differently, a shy start and a slow build up to a tentative romance, the consummation of that connection the end goal. But theatre can shift the emphasis onto the longer impacts and implication of this relationship, altering the perspective from the close-up to the long view to find its meaning.
Robinson and Butterell have managed that extremely well across this new production, making the emergence and sustenance of this feeling between Ennis and Jack the spine of the show, the depth of the emotion between them and the way in which it builds even as years pass and lots of activities and experiences occur around them is unfaltering. The writer and director are never distracted from the perspective of older Ennis looking back on the loneliness and emptiness of his life without Jack. This past conjured up for the audience essentially has a single track that is designed to inform the present, away from the tricks of cinema, the full impact of which in this theatre production can only be truly understood and felt at the end of the story.
The cinematic nature of this production is only enhanced by the addition of Dan Gillespie Sells’s music, played live and helping to set the mood and track the emotional pulse of the production. Performed by Eddi Reader playing the Balladeer along with her country and western band, these emotive original songs provide a ranging soundtrack with a depth and potency that integrates perfectly with the story, explaining and enhancing the emotional turbulence experienced by the characters. The music is a constant presence but it also feels deftly applied, providing support at just the right moments, a shorthand to enhance the tacit meaning beneath Robinson’s sparring dialogue and the retrained performances.
Staged on a simple but evocative set designed by Tom Pye, there is never any doubt that the action takes place in semi-rural America of small towns and bleak, isolated but potentially freeing landscapes. All of this is cleverly implied by Pye who stages in-the-round on a raised central platform into which bits of furniture can sink or emerge depending on whether the location is a domestic space or the empty landscape, providing a neat and smooth solution to a piece that often needs to move quickly between locations. This is surrounded by gravelly landscape where the Brokeback Mountain camp and other outdoor locations can be partially staged, more than enough to evoke the outdoors feel when needed, but suggesting the pressure of the landscape and the limited freedoms for its inhabitants even in town.
On a small stage Director Butterell eschews any elaborate staging but keeps the focus on the intimacy that grows between the two men using the scale of the auditorium to infer perspective as the landscape dwarfs them. At the same time, Butterell manages to fill this space with their story and the emotional connection between them that simultaneously shows the insignificance of two people but also their importance. Using all four entrance ways at the stalls level brings the story into the audience while the raised platform stage creates at least one more inventive way for characters to appear as if from nowhere that, as a directorial choice, maintains the theatrical spell.
While it is inevitable that some comparisons will be made with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s originating film performances when critics review the show later this week, Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist have made their show and these roles entirely their own. With previous stage experience in the US, this is an early opportunity to see two young stars on the rise and both are compelling, giving a sense of the quite different forces that bring them together as well as the sweep of decades as their characters mature from not very idealistic 20-somethings to men with responsibilities and financial pressures in their late 30s.
Hedges’s Ennis is the more brooding of the pair, a quiet, reserved man who says very little and barely acknowledges his emotions at all, and Ennis is actively trying to perform a particular archetype of cowboy masculinity that makes his feelings for Jack so difficult to manage. There is a gruff edge to Hedges’s approach that is forbidding at first, refusing to engage, which means he is taken by surprise on Brokeback Mountain. Over time Hedges’s charts Ennis’s struggle with maintaining a surface respectability and the deep, unavoidable feeling he harbours for Jack even years later and the constant conflict within the character, an inability to see himself clearly and to risk having the life he wants that ultimately becomes both tragic and moving.
Faist’s Jack by contrast is a live wire, bouncing around the stage with an early energy that suggests a comfort with himself and all the things he is that make him a complete contrast with Ennis’s repression. Jack is more responsive to his physical needs and although fearful of the dangers of living openly as a gay man, feels no shame or confusion within himself. Faist’s performance suggesting this is society’s problem and not Jack’s. Over time, Faist reveals the depth of the love that Jack feels for Ennis, an addiction of sorts but also a certainty that his lover denies him, with Jack more willing to make the leap to something substantial, making the life they could have had a bittersweet regret. And “If you can’t fix it, you gotta take it” becomes his pragmatic mantra.
While the boundaries between film and theatre are increasingly blurred, they are different experiences and require different techniques to convey their story. Film can use close-up and cutting techniques to create emotional investment in an instant while theatre must play the long-game and here this premiere production of Brokeback Mountain does that with considerable care, constructing an emotional connection with the audience that yields results as the show unfolds. Love on stage and screen certainly looks quite different now than it did twenty years ago but there is still a quiet power in the story of two men who couldn’t fix it and just had to endure.
Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place until 12 August with tickets from £29.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog