Writer: Sam Shepard
Director: Matthew Dunster
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
After a stint in a long-running TV show, a lot of actors head for the theatre almost immediately – the stage is their shop window, a chance to show the casting agents and creatives that the character they have been playing for years is only a fraction of what they can offer. In the summer, Aidan Turner reminded us he could do more than brood on clifftops with a joyously comic turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, while Kit Harington takes on a giant of American theatre.
Sam Shepard’s True West is largely a duologue between two adult brothers crossing paths after more than 5-years apart. Austin is planning his latest screenplay and has come to stay at his mother’s house in California in order to broker a deal with producer Saul. On the cusp of victory, his wilder brother Lee unexpectedly arrives, stealing not just his thunder but also his job. As frustrations build between the siblings, Lee decides that Austin should write his movie instead.
Shepard’s 1980 play is from a particular era in American writing, spare, punchy and lean, there is a masculine force in Shepard’s style that is redolent of the other greater writers of the period including novelist Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth, as well as playwright David Mamet who penned Glen Garry Glenross in 1984, arguably one of True West’s artistic cousins. Matthew Dunster’s production of True West emphasises the concern with both the shape and future of a masculinity existing in offices and other indoor spaces craving a primal connection to the vast and unforgiving natural reality of the US countryside.
Dunster’s production is played in two fairly distinct halves, the first 40-minutes focusing on Lee’s intimidating presence and the creation of an unsettling tone which allows Johnny Flynn’s Lee to take control almost without realising. There is something artless about Flynn’s performance in which Lee pursues his own movie idea not merely for the sake of malice, but for a wistful dream of home and a settled state which he hankers for. You never feel he’s doing this purposefully to wound Austin, but Flynn has such a wonderful ability to play characters calibrated just a touch differently to everyone else in the room, just enough to feel slightly off, and Flynn uses this throughout to muddy Lee’s ultimate motivation and keeping the audience guessing about how much he really loves his brother.
The second act of a similar length is much more farcical in which Harington dominates as Austin essentially unravels, finally releasing the carefree man he’s always wanted to be. Initially composed, even to the point of repression, Harington’s Austin is trapped by a need to provide for a family who he barely seems to care for, repeatedly emphasising the importance of the movie deal. The challenge within Austin is the intellectual versus the instinctual life and just as he appears to lose his grip on the material world, Austin’s inner life burst open resulting in a very funny sequence with a pile of toast.
Together Flynn and Harington are building a great relationship that particularly catches fire after the unnecessary interval and will only deepen as the run continues. What lets the production down are some of the decisions around them. Dunster hasn’t quite found the balance between the darker first act and the more physical second, meaning the show takes a while to fuel at the start, but loses some of the more chilling moments towards the end as the battle of wills manifests into a brutal encounter between them, an eternal fight to the death that goes right back to Shepard’s concern with the origins and evolution of male modes of interaction.
Jon Bausor’s set richly evokes a slightly shabby but respectable working-class home in 70s California mimicked in the costumes that contrast Austin’s accountant-like demeanour with Lee’s cowboy aesthetic. Scenes do end abruptly in Shepard’s play, yet the very visible (though efficient) member of the stage crew rapidly resetting the stage in the darkness rather breaks the spell, diffusing the tension the actors have created and allowing a meta-reality to intrude on the storytelling. There must be a more invisible way to achieve the same effect.
True West perhaps doesn’t make the most of the nuances of Shepard’s writing, but its siblings in crisis tale is nonetheless an entertaining night out. The central performances, in particular, are full of colour and a chance to see two interesting young actors showcasing a different set of skills. For Harington especially after the unfairly maligned Faustus and eight series of a popular TV show, True West shows the world that he has a lot more to offer.
Until: 23 February 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner