Brokeback Mountain at @sohoplace review: this stripped-back show is a potent, subtle piece of dramatic alchemy

Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges in Brokeback Mountain  (Manuel Harlan)
Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges in Brokeback Mountain (Manuel Harlan)

The moment magnetic American rising stars Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges come on stage, apprehension about this adaptation of the famous cowboy love story is dispelled. What we have here is a tough, tender account of two men caught unawares by taboo desire in hardscrabble Wyoming in 1963, and it’s beautifully performed.

Ashley Robinson – an actor making an impressive playwrighting debut – and director Jonathan Butterell honour Annie Proulx’s original short story. And they try hard to ignore Ang Lee’s 2005 movie with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

This gives Faist, the co-star of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, and Hedges, Oscar-nominated for his role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the freedom to retell the story on an intimate scale.

Whatever you’ve heard, it’s not a musical. Dan Gillespie Sells has composed an evocative, country-inflected score that’s performed live by Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader and an onstage band, and which punctuates the 90-minute story.

The ensemble of keyboard, steel guitar, bass and harmonica is pretty ravishing, and Reader’s American singing voice is soused in loneliness and regret. The lyrics are the major let-down, a collection of clichés about windy peaks, lavender skies and howling coyotes meant to evoke the panoramic vistas that literature and film do better than theatre.

Never mind. This remains a potent, subtle piece of dramatic alchemy.

Emily Fairn and Lucas Hedges in Brokeback Mountain (Manuel Harlan)
Emily Fairn and Lucas Hedges in Brokeback Mountain (Manuel Harlan)

Faist’s freewheeling Jack Twist, a middling bull-rider in rodeos, is thrown together with Hedges’s closed-off Ennis Del Mar one chilly season watching sheep on Brokeback Mountain.

After the first, hidden tryst in a pup tent, the two actors convincingly portray the wonder and alarm of two besotted men who previously considered themselves straight – or largely straight in Jack’s case. Their love is a pure thing in a world of hardship and compromise, fatal if it became known.

There’s impressive physicality as well as emotional nuance to the performances. Both look like men used to labour and hardship at the start. Faist gets looser as Jack gets older and better-off. Hedges blossoms then withdraws as Ennis as his horizons expand and contract. The two have powerful sexual chemistry but also great ease together.

Over the 20-year arc of the story Jack’s wife Lureen is mostly absent. But there is real attraction, and then real bitterness, between Ennis and his wife Alma, played with startling assurance by newcomer Emily Fairn.

Martin Marquez contributes a solid array of patriarchal supporting parts. Paul Hickey haunts the fringes of the in-the-round staging as the older Ennis in 2013, remembering it all.

Beds, kitchens and tables pop neatly out of Tom Pye’s platform set, which conjures the isolation of its two main characters, even if it can’t magic up mountain ranges. This is a gem of a show, marrying two arthouse-cool American actors with an oddball selection of offstage talent to produce something quietly moving. It’s a further indication of what the remarkable, peculiar @sohoplace theatre can do.

@sohoplace, to Aug 12; buy tickets here