Brokeback Mountain ★★★★★

Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx’s haunting tale of irresistible forbidden love, gets its world premiere as a play with music at Soho Place

There’s something indefinable about Annie Proulx‘s short story. Even though it is less than 10,000 words from start to finish, her Brokeback Mountain somehow leaves an indelible impression upon its readers. Although it has been transformed into an opera and a hugely successful movie, the adaptations have never quite captured that elusive lightning-in-a-bottle of its source material. Until now.

As a play with music, Ashley Robinson through an impeccable script and Dan Gillespie Sells‘ exquisite soundtrack, this production of Brokeback Mountain manages to stay faithful to the original text, both in word and in spirit.

All images by Manuel Harlan

Brokeback Mountain tells the story of Ennis and Jack, two men thrown together as sheep herders in Wyoming in 1963 who begin a sexual relationship that develops into an overwhelming emotional connection. This memorable tale of how the unexpected and potentially dangerous passion between the two men persists in a rough world, filled of privations. Adapting Proulx’s classic for the stage is quite the challenge. Neither main characters are what you could describe as talkative types. 

Mike Faist, best known for playing Riff in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and originated the role of ‘Connor Murphy’ in the theatre smash Dear Evan Hansen, plays the more worldly Jack, while Lucas Hedges, who earned an Academy Award Nomination as Best Supporting actor for his role in Manchester By The Sea, takes on the role of the more taciturn Ennis. “You ain’t much of a talker” is Jack’s first interaction with Ennis and the beginning of the very gradual evolving of their relationship. “We’re not going to spend this summer in that mountain in silence”. There is a subtle breadcrumb trail from Jack showing Ennis the scars on his torso to a discussion on the power of a bull bucking hard. 

With Ennis’ sardonic line to Jack, “You sure are crazy”, Hedge’s begins to soften his character’s body language. After they swap roles looking after the sheep, when Ennis returns he announces “I’m going to wash everything I can reach”, it is like he is subtly reciprocating a physical exposure for Jack’s benefit. The momentum towards an intimacy continues as the two men joke warmly with each other. When Jack plays a mouth organ, Ennis unexpectedly sings along before quipping “Your harmonica sounds funny” only to be met with Jack’s wry riposte, “What’s your voice’s excuse?”

Director Jonathan Butterell paces these scenes so well, there is an underlying inevitability from what is unsaid in the interplay between the two, that when they physically express their passion – the sex is glimpsed as silhouettes on the sides of the tent – it feels explosive and momentous. 

The soaring moment is immediately grounded with Ennis promptly declaring “I’m no queer” and Jack agreeing it was “a one-shot thing”. In such a homophobic roughneck rural community, there is an understanding that it has to be a transitory thing. As the end of the summer approaches and the foreman Joe Aguirre (Martin Marquez) has spotted what they’ve been up to through his binoculars, both are forced to return to their expected previous lives. Unable to articulate feelings, in an embrace Jack insists Ennis lets him go to which Ennis sucker-punches him. When Jack suggests they might work together again next summer, Ennis tells him that he and his girlfriend Alma are getting married next summer. A defensiveness descends with Jack saying that he might head to Texas in the Spring and they part with a cold “See you around” from Ennis. No sooner than Jack disappears than Ennis is sick by the roadside, revealing his true feelings. 

By the time their paths cross some years later, both are married and have children. While they are physically reunited again and try to find moments to be together, the undeniable sadness is in their growing understanding that it can never be. As they run out of places where they can meet, the ache of what could have been is overwhelming. Both Faist and Hedges display such control in their performances, that the heartbreak is felt all the keener. “We could have had a good life together” Faist cries, the years of pent-up hopes breaking, “but you wouldn’t do it, Ennis”. Hedges in equal anguish returns “I wish I knew how to quit you”. Just as Proulx’s short story, there is nothing forced or overstated in Robinson’s script. The beautiful chemistry between the two actors lands this terrible moment like a hammer blow. The realisation, of having such an irresistible connection in a world where they have no choice but to resist it, is an incredibly powerful and painful moment. 

Where this production succeeds so well is not only in telling Ennis and Jack’s story but in transporting you into the world they live in. The challenge of rendering an isolated, rural mountain is imaginatively evoked by the creative team. Tom Pye‘s set design with rough scrubland, a real campfire and weathered  furniture is augmented by David Finn‘s unobtrusive lighting design and Christopher Shutt‘s redolent, organic soundscape of weather and wildlife. 

The truly transformative element of the production is Dan Gillespie Sells‘ resonant soundtrack of songs and music. Ranging from melodic original country songs to haunting instrumental scoring, performed by a stage-adjacent band of talented musicians (Sean Green, Meelie Traill, Greg Miller and BJ Cole) with the incomparable vocals of Eddi Reader, the music is the thread that ties Brokeback Mountain together. 

Sometimes it stitches one scene to the next, providing the change in tone to carry the drama from one place to another. But more impressively, the songs articulate what these men of few words are feeling but lack the language to express themselves. Lyrics such as “so far away” hang in the air as Jack and Ennis spend their first night on the mountain together but apart. Country and western ditties that cheerful proclaim “You and me together have got all we need” hint at the growing relationship between the two. 

Reader, who is something of a musical troubadour herself, constantly touring and playing live gigs, has the ideal singing versatility to be able to channel a typical Country twang but also unleash an ethereal vocal howl to speak of the dizzying emotions of joy and pain. The song Sharing Your Heart verbalises Jack’s awareness that Ennis will never truly be his. The stunning Hale Strew River is a haunting and haunted anthem to the vastness of the surrounding landscape but also the boundless scale of their inner emotions. 

Brokeback Mountain manages to render the sparse prose of Proulx’s classic short story into a subtle but powerful stage production. Replicating the gradual turn of the wheel in the lives of the two protagonists, the show leads to an inevitable and emotional conclusion that will leave you broken-hearted and moved. 

Old Brokeback got us good – ★★★★★ 5 stars

Brokeback Mountain Tickets

Brokeback Mountain runs at @SohoPlace until 12th August 2023

Book Now