Brokeback Mountain was a star-making story onscreen. It may turn out to be the same onstage.
Rising American stars Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist are making their London theatre debuts in an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about two star-crossed Wyoming shepherds whose love is stifled by the strictures of their society.
Proulx’s tale of homophobia on the range, first published in 1997, reached a huge global audience through Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning 2005 film, which cemented the stardom of Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger.
A new stage version at London’s Soho Place theatre, stars Hedges as taciturn ranch hand Ennis Del Mar and Faist as livewire cowboy Jack Twist, who fall passionately in love during a 1960s summer on an isolated mountainside.
Both are already acclaimed young actors. Hedges got an Oscar nomination for playing a bereaved teenager in 2016 drama Manchester By The Sea, and Faist is a Tony Award nominee for Dear Evan Hansen and made a splash as gang leader Riff in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.
Still, Hedges admitted he was "pretty nervous” before opening night.
"It’s constantly a process of feeling like I’ve discovered the character and then losing the character and then finding it again,” said Hedges.
"We’re always nervous,” added Faist. But he said the actors trusted that director Jonathan Butterell had cast them for a reason.
"It’s because he sees those qualities in us,” he said. "I think all of us in general have both of them. We’re all Ennises and we’re all Jacks, in our way. So the duality exists within all of us and part of our job is to just find those parts and bring them to the surface and make them the most accessible as possible.”
Ashley Robinson’s script aims to match the gut-wrenching economy of Proulx’s 35-page story. It covers two decades in 90 minutes, as the pair struggle to convert their passion into something sustainable and sustaining.
Hedges said the director had compared the show to the last production to run at Soho Place, Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea.
"Of course it’s not ancient Greek theatre, but there’s something deeply fundamental about it, about these two characters, about the way in which they need each other and can’t ultimately be together,” said Hedges. "There is something classic about the dynamic, and the stakes.”
The actors are accompanied onstage by a live band that includes Scottish singer Eddi Reader and legendary British pedal steel player B.J. Cole. But don’t call it a musical - this version of Wyoming is a long way from Oklahoma!
"These characters bursting into song would make no sense at all,” said Dan Gillespie Sells, who composed the show's plaintive, country-tinged songs. "These characters don’t have an inner dialogue.
"They can’t express themselves, and they can’t express themselves to themselves.”
Instead, "a pedal steel guitar and a harmonica - those things can deliver you into landscape” both interior and exterior, said Sells, whose theatre work includes songs for the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Brokeback Mountain, which runs until Aug 12, has drawn mixed reviews. The Guardian thought the play had a "distilled purity,” but the Times of London said the production "smoulders fitfully” rather than catching fire. But there has been wide praise for the two leads, as well as for British actor Emily Fairn, making her professional stage debut as Ennis’s disappointed wife, Alma.
What’s undeniable is the power of the Brokeback Mountain story, which also was adapted into an opera, first staged in 2014, with music by Charles Wuorinen and libretto by Proulx. Some see it as a classic love story - but director Butterell thinks that is a misunderstanding.
"It’s not a love story,” he said. "It’s a story about fear. It’s a tragedy, because fear wins out.
"This story is still very, very, very relevant,” he added. "We have not shifted so far.” - AP