Annie Proulx’s ‘97 story of repressed homosexual desire has been at the forefront of the gay imagination at least since Ang Lee’s ‘05 film adaptation lost Best Picture to Crash. And with a stage play landing in London, we are invited to reconsider how its whiskey-drinking, tryst-stealing cowboys stand up today. Is this a story for now, or is it just a vehicle for its stars to do something arty, theatrical, and British? What does it have to tell us? With relief, quite a lot — though the answers lie more in consideration than the drama of its delivery.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

An aged Ennis Del Mar (Rob Alexander-Adams) awakes alone in his room, plagued by longing as he recalls the love he once lost to the repressive culture of ‘60s Wyoming. As the country-Western on his tinny radio swells into Eddi Reader’s heart-rending live band, these reminiscences come to life, as a younger Del Mar (Lucas Hedges) and his soon-to-be secret lover, Jack Twist (Mike Faist) are brought together to herd a flock of sheep on lonely Brokeback Mountain. It’s an incredible setup for an erotic encounter that’s been parodied ad infinitum as a prelude to more overtly sexual narratives. Here these are concealed, with moments of contact taking place in the dark, so we can hear and feel them happening whilst still affording the characters (and actors) the dignity of privacy.

This ‘keeping us out’ suffuses other moments in the play and can at times feel incredibly mature, presenting scenes in a distinctly observational manner and honing in on the characters’ behaviour. At other times, a little more interiority would help us to feel more connected to the characters’ emotional lives, especially in the first act where there’s little suggestion of the erotic tension that one might expect from their burgeoning lust — one fitful wrestling scene feels a little too choreographed to carry off the angst and aggression underlying their attraction. Perhaps this unreadability is a comment on the main pair’s capacity to mask their feelings and present as ‘ordinary’, women-loving men — but if so, it’s something I had to ponder out, contributing to a production that is generally more cerebral than gutsy.

Opening with the muted and distant melodies of a time gone by similarly fails to grab in the way the live band could. Things are being told in the aftermath, but without any sense of the modern Ennis’ dramatic circumstances, the story struggles to launch with any urgency as it does so effectively with Baldwin’s comparably doomed Giovanni’s Room. Another touchstone would be the Glass Menagerie, whose recent production with Amy Adams suffered from a similar choice to keep the present-day memory holder onstage throughout.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

Despite these somewhat stilling features, there is a pleasing logic in the languages being used and once these are learned, layers of complexity appear, particularly with the switching of musical levels. Incorporating the band’s singers into the dialogue towards the end satisfyingly blends the music and action in a way that is missing earlier on, and Alma (Emily Fairn)’s realisation of Ennis’ homosexuality plays out with a convincingly building intensity. For a show about men not being able to express their desire, a powerful feminine energy presides over the story.

Brilliantly acted, ruggedly designed, atmospherically musical, and stunningly lit, the piece possesses great rhythm and the chemistry of Hedges and Faist is undeniable. I was not shaken by the tragedy of the tale, but the implications for the older Del Mar will continue to linger on. Where it could have been crass and queer-baity, this is in fact a delightfully nuanced, sensual and thought-provoking watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Brokeback Mountain is on at @sohoplace until the 12th of August – tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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