The good news: West Side Story star Mike Faist is fantastic in @sohoplace’s stage adaptation of Brokeback Mountain. The bad news: the production is as galumphingly unsubtle as a “Cotton Eyed Joe” remix on a dance machine. There’s something admirably brave about taking on Annie Proulx’s sparse, shattering love story about two men on a mountain, already made into a now canonical film, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. But Jonathan Butterell’s production seems set on turning it into the cliché that it’s sometimes reduced to – “Oh, that gay cowboy movie!”
Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges and rising star Mike Faist are a major draw in the lead roles, making their London stage debuts at a venue that is not yet a year old. Hedges plays the reticent, strong but silent Ellis – Ledger in the film – while Faist takes on Gyllenhaal’s role, the gregarious talker Jack Twist. But both young actors are let down by a production that doesn’t seem to let their talent speak for itself.
Everyone knows that Brokeback Mountain is elegiac, erotic, and unfolds upon a hilly, chilly wilderness. Butterell, though, loudly telegraphs all of this with clunky devices that detract from the material and performances rather than amplifying them. From the first to the last scene, the action is watched by a taciturn, mournful Ellis, inserting the couple’s tragic destiny from the start. Dan Gillespie Sells, Butterell’s collaborator on Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, has composed 13 Americana-ish songs, distractingly performed by a band off the stage in-between scenes. The music feels both heavy-handed and indistinct; I assume it’s there to help convey the emotion, but it hampers the actors from doing that with their performances. Some of the dialogue, too, lands too much like innuendo. “I’ll get you talking,” Jack tells moody Ennis when they first become acquainted, to a loud audience laugh. “Sure you will,” Ennis replies, to more guffaws.
At just 90 minutes without an interval, the story also feels rushed: Ang Lee’s 2005 film allowed moments of silence to bloom, tensions to simmer and boil. Here, Jack and Ennis’s first night together in their tent is soundtracked by an incessant, bassy piano note, with some shadowy rumpy pumpy – but there’s little build-up, or sense of something unfolding that neither can stop or control. “I’m not no queer,” Ennis insists, the morning after. “Me neither,” Jack replies. But because the pacing is so fast, there is little chance to explore the lives the men live away from the mountain, or the expectations upon their masculinity, or the homophobic society in which they live.
It’s a frustrating approach, given Hedges and Faist are such a coup. Admittedly, Hedges feels a little miscast at times – he plays the introvert to Faist’s chatterbox extrovert well, but lacks a certain kind of gruff gravitas, not quite conveying Ennis’s inner torment. This may be, in part, that the production doesn’t give him the breathing space to do so. Faist, though, builds on the star-making performance he gave in West Side Story, with the impishness of Timothée Chalamet and the electric emotional intelligence of Andrew Scott. A highlight is his showboating harmonica performance, as Ennis and Jack, sizing each other up, sing together in what feels like their first moment of flirting. Later, he delivers the famous “I wish I knew how to quit you” speech with a strength and maturity of his own, not weighed down by the bazillion times that scene has been watched by the world already.
So, yes, it was brave to take on Brokeback Mountain, but I was left wondering why this new version needed to exist. The main reason, surely, is that it could be an important showcase for two exceptional actors. Except rather than allowing them to climb a mountain, it just leaves them stranded on a stage.
@sohoplace, until 12 August