Onstage, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Is Still a Tragedy

Onstage, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Is Still a Tragedy


In 2016, when the theater director Jonathan Butterell was considering a proposal to adapt Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain” for the stage, he wondered how to translate the prose’s vast landscape and insular emotions into a play.

Last month, in a central London rehearsal studio, Butterell and Ashley Robinson, who wrote the play, tried to answer that question. To help the cast connect with Proulx’s story of a cowboy and a ranch hand falling in love against the wide-stretching landscapes of 1960s Wyoming, black-and-white photographs of American plains and mountain ranges were tacked to the walls during rehearsals.

“The vastness has been there from the very beginning,” Butterell said in a recent interview. When it came to evoking the story’s emotional landscape, the director had stuck one sepia-toned photograph, of a lone cowboy in a snow-covered Wyoming, behind a pillar. The image “speaks to the bit of us that feels alone in the world,” Butterell said. “Maybe he’s at peace with this, maybe it’s the source of his agony.”

Butterell’s “Brokeback Mountain” opened in previews May 10 at @sohoplace in London’s West End. It’s the first time the story has been adapted for theater — an opera by Charles Wuorinen premiered in Madrid in 2014 — and each version now follows in the footsteps of Proulx’s text and the film that popularized it: Ang Lee’s 2005 Academy Award-winning adaptation, which is often cited as one of the best L.G.B.T.Q. films of all time.

Butterell said he was aware of his audience having expectations based on the film. “They’re inevitable,” he said, “but I don’t mind that.”

This theatrical version also has some Hollywood clout. Its lead characters, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, are played by the BAFTA-nominated actor Mike Faist and the Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges.

In late 2016, Robinson first wrote a treatment for what he called a “memory play” based on the short story, after speaking with the composer Dan Gillespie Sells and Butterell. Robinson’s script stated that the Wyoming setting should not be conveyed “in a purely literal sense,” and his story is set in 2013, with an older version of del Mar reflecting on the years he spent with Twist between 1963 and 1983.

Proulx approved of Robinson’s vision. She has “high hopes for the play,” she said in a recent email interview. “When I read Ashley’s script several years ago, I thought he had done a fine job.”

In Proulx’s story, del Mar and Twist’s interior worlds are conveyed by an omniscient narrator. In the stage adaptation, music does much of that work.

“These two men can’t sing,” Gillespie Sells said, because “they don’t have an emotional dialogue.” Instead, a character called The Balladeer — played by the Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader — sings with an onstage country and western band. “She takes us through time,” Butterell said. “Sometimes it’s from night to day. Sometimes it’s 10 years.”

“Brokeback Mountain” will be the first time its two lead actors have appeared onstage in five years. Faist, who plays Twist, originated the role of Connor Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, and has had more recent success in film, including Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story.”

Hedges “hadn’t acted in a while” when he was sent the script, he said, having been focusing on writing instead. The “Brokeback” offer and playing del Mar changed that. “There wasn’t an angle I didn’t love about this,” he said.

As the project entered its final week of rehearsals, both actors were grappling with the process in different ways. Hedges said he was experiencing “tragic and triumphant ups and downs” about his own work. “I have a day where I think I’ve figured it all out, and then a day when it all disappears,” he said. The “collective experience” of theater was daunting compared to working in film, he said, adding that onstage, “I can’t use tricks to make it through.”

Faist concurred: “It’s a challenge, and it’s terrifying,” mainly because of the expectations of having to match the source material and 2005 film, he said. “But as terrifying and frustrating as it is, I really am having the time of my life,” he added.

Butterell said that Faist and Hedges were “as men, as actors, very different creatures.” Faist, he said, had “a sense of life and vivacity,” while Hedges “has this deeply complex interior landscape that’s very much of Ennis.”

Neither Hedges, Faist nor Butterell had revisited Lee’s film since they were approached for the project. “The truth of the matter is, no matter what, he’s not Heath Ledger and I’m not Jake Gyllenhaal,” Faist said of the film’s two lead stars, who both earned Oscar nominations for their performances. He and Hedges, Faist added, would both bring their “own weird things” to the roles.

The production has forced Faist to confront his “traumas,” he said. “We can take those traumas, turn them around,” he added, and, he hopes, make the audience “think deeply about their own lives.”

Following the success of the “Brokeback Mountain” film, Proulx said fans of her text sent her fan fiction that rewrote the ending of her short story, claiming the original was too sad. She told the The Paris Review that those fans had “misunderstood” the story and stated that it was, most importantly, about “homophobia.”

This is the first adaptation of “Brokeback” to be released since the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal in all 50 U.S. states. Robinson — who lives in Brooklyn but was raised in the tiny town of Lockhart, S.C. — said he wrote it to remind audiences that gay trauma still exists.

“These stories aren’t necessarily being told anymore because of a trend to put onstage what we want the world to be,” he said, referring to the theater community. “That’s a wonderful thing to do, but we shouldn’t cancel out all of the opportunities to talk about what’s going on underneath it.”

Butterell added that the fight against homophobia was “not over” in Britain either, citing a recent spike in the number of attacks on L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“This is a tragedy,” Butterell said of the play. “Of course love exists — I don’t want it to be solemn — but the tragedy of this piece is that fear wins.”

Source: Read Full Article