As the movie adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story approaches its 18th birthday, the still-pretty-new @sohoplace theatre has ditched Medea for another crack at the proverbial whip. With Proulx’s original as the source, Ashley Robinson’s latest interpretation hikes up the tragedy in the text for a powerful and melancholic revision of a modern classic.
The year, a chipper radio DJ helpfully tells us, is 2013, and an old man wakes up alone in rural Wyoming. Remembering back to his time as a sheepherder in the 1960s, he watches on as his younger self (Lucas Hedges) struggles with his feelings for a fellow cowboy – Mike Faist’s Jack Twist. For those already familiar with Brokeback Mountain, either the short story or the film, the plot is unlikely to hold many surprises – but in a way, that might be just the point.
Performing songs written by Everybody’s Talking About Jamie composer Dan Gillespie Sells, Eddi Reader’s Balladeer soundtracks proceedings with a series, appropriately, of ballads. Combined with a deceptively simple campfire-kitchen set, the effect is quietly powerful, ramming home the melancholic quality of the text without overshadowing some pretty devastating performances. Jonathon Butterell’s direction blends these elements seamlessly, @sohoplace’s in-the-round setup helping match the organic feel of the play.
Faist is positively magnetic as the more outgoing of the two cowboys – as a performer he seems to have the rare sort of effortless charisma that translates just as well on stage as on screen. But Lucas Hedges is the real stand-out, beautifully understated as a repressed man crushed by the weight of the society he’s living in.
Paul Hickey, as the older Ellis, has maybe the less glamorous job of watching his life play back in front of him. The decision to keep him on stage throughout may not be novel, but frames the tale well. For an audience who mostly know already where the play is going to end up, the memory angle adds an extra melancholic feel that can’t help but linger long after the curtain falls.
At a whisker over 90 minutes, Brokeback Mountain’s length might be an odd barrier to displaying a lifetime of regret. But the short time spent with these characters only adds to one of the story’s central themes – life with the people we love can be devastatingly short. Brokeback Mountain remains a deeply affecting tale; but it might be the loneliest love story on the West End.
Brokeback Mountain is playing at the @sohoplace theatre until 12 Aug 2023