Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was a preacher, a humanitarian, a civil rights activist, an inspirational speaker and, following his assassination in 1968, a martyr. But in the Queensland Theatre Company's production of The Mountaintop, which continues its run at QPAC's Playhouse till 16 March, Martin Luther King is painted as more man than myth.
Rather than focus on King's greatness, playwright Katori Hall instead hones on his frailty and fallibility. Set within the tired walls of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, on King's final night on Earth, The Mountaintop is billed as 'a warts-and-all portrait of a human being'.
The action begins with a late-night request from King (Pacharo Mzembe) for a room-service coffee to help sustain him through a long night of speech-writing. But his thoughts turn elsewhere with the appearance of sassy hotel maid Camae (Candy Bowers).
Is there such a thing as a perfectly innocent pillow fight? Photography by Rob Maccoll at QPAC's Playhouse. Image courtesy Queensland Theatre Company.
Through the snappy, funny dialogue that unfolds, audience members begin to glimpse King's flaws. He is vain - disparaging contemporaries including Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson. He considers himself both invincible and indispensable. Despite having just phoned his wife and daughter, he is physically drawn to the potty-mouthed maid. He even has, as Camae points out, smelly feet.
[ADVERT]Some people in the audience found the dialogue inaudible at times, perhaps a consequence of too-low volume combined with unfamiliar accents, while others described the size differential between Mzembe and Bowers as distracting. But these are relatively minor points. It's an intense and challenging play for performers but given the laughter which rolled in regularly, the payoffs for the audience were plentiful.
A West End and Broadway sell-out, The Mountaintop offers an almost voyeuristic experience, revealing as it does King's private rather than public persona. 'This isn't the I Have A Dream King,' Hall explains. 'This man (is) so much a human being'.
The Mountaintop is also a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of death, and the limits of angelic acts of intercession. In the skilful hands of Mzembe and Bowers, The Mountaintop strikes just the right balance between darkness and light, and features an ending that is as deliciously surprising as it is surreal.
Photography by Rob Maccoll with Candy Bowers at QPAC's Playhouse. Image courtesy Queensland Theatre Company