Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place
Annie Proulx’s tale of forbidden love between two male farmhands in rural America began life as a short story. It is best known as the film starring the late Heath Ledger alongside Jake Gyllenhaal. Something of a turning point for mainstream Queer cinema, it is one of the most acclaimed additions to the LGBTQ+ canon. It now makes its way onto the stage in a world premiere at London’s new Soho Place.
The venue is superbly transformed into 1960s Wyoming with a stunning set by Tom Pye. Dirt and gravel outline a prominent platform, which serves as the mountainous area where Ennis and Jack are first tasked to watch over sheep. A crackling fire transports us into the wild. There is nowhere to hide – either for the actors or for the characters who must watch over their shoulders should anyone witness them display their affection for one another. At once expansive and intimate, the landscape conjured connotes the desperate loneliness prevailing over these individuals. The in-the-round configuration adds to the intimacy the quiet and delicate play commands.
The vast emotions that swirl largely beneath the surface are punctuated by a live band and Eddi Reader as balladeer. With lyrics by The Feeling frontman Dan Gillespie Sells, who reunites with Everybody’s Talking About Jamie director Jonathan Butterell, Reader’s rich vocals bring further emotional weight. This affords additional layers to the production, drawing the audience even further into the world of our dual protagonists.
They are played by Hollywood actors Lucas Hedges, as the understated Ennis, and Mike Faist as the more extroverted Jack. We first encounter Ennis in his twilight years with actor Paul Hickey lying in bed as the audience shuffle in. It signifies that what is about to unfold is a memory play and older Ennis watches, as we do, as these two young men embark on a tempestuous and uncertain journey that spans 20 years.
It’s important to remember that in 1963, when the story first begins, same-sex relationships were still considered a crime – a fact that would not be legally amended until 1977. Ennis is quite rightly fearful of being killed because of his sexuality. He recounts his father forcing him to see the body of an older farmer who ran a ranch with another man, both being brutally murdered as a result. While acceptance for gay people has come a very long way since this time, 2022 saw an increase in hate crime towards LGBTQ+ people in the UK. Will simply loving or being attracted to someone of the same sex ever be fully accepted? The fact that such a question must be asked in these so-called modern times says a great deal.
Faist is mesmeric as he commands the stage, often talking at a rate of knots. When he suggests the two run a ranch of their own and embrace loving one another rather than resorting to secret rendezvous, we believe he truly wants this. In complete and endearingly mismatched contrast, Ennis is the more cynical and reserved, apprehensive at navigating the uncharted waters he finds himself in. The character embodies a multitude of contradictory feelings, including internalised homophobia, which Hedges successfully encompasses. The actor has less to work with in terms of dialogue but excavates all he can from the material to present a torn and tormented character who says a great deal more through his actions than he does with his words.
Ennis’s scenes with wife Alma (portrayed convincingly by Emily Fairn, who makes a startling West End debut) are charged with an array of emotions. It’s inevitable yet still heartbreaking when she witnesses her husband kissing another man. When she finally confronts him about all his alleged fishing trips, we are gifted an incredibly poignant scene that showcases the immense talent before us. There is true passion and real investment from the entire cast and creative team: all the ingredients are there for the most satisfying of theatrical experiences. While many of the play’s points are hard to digest, we are left invigorated, touched and provoked.
Tender and moving, Brokeback Mountain permits its audience a viewpoint upon which to look back on how things once were for gay people while considering just how much – and how little – progress has been made. With magnetic chemistry and raw, impassioned performances by our two leads, this memory play is sure to leave a lasting mark.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place from 10th May until 12th August 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.