Monday, 15 September 2014

Theatre review: True West

Widely considered an American classic and included by the National Theatre in its list of the 100 best plays of the 20th century, Sam Shepard's 1980 play True West comes to the Tricycle in a production by Phillip Breen that originated at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre. His mother (Barbara Rafferty) having gone on holiday to Alaska, screenwriter Austin (Eugene O'Hare) is housesitting for her, using her Hollywood condo as a place to write his screenplay and meet with producers who may be interested in it. But there's little chance of peace when the brother he hasn't seen in five years turns up unexpectedly: Lee (Alex Ferns) is a filthy, drunken drifter who spends most of his life wandering the desert alone, his few trips to civilization mainly for the purpose of burgling people's houses. The nervous, nerdy Austin is clearly afraid of his borderline-feral brother and hopes to get rid of him, but when Lee crashes a meeting with a producer it looks like they'll be stuck together a while longer.

Saul (Steven Elliot) is amused by Lee's rough charm, and when he loses a bet agrees to option his muddled plot for a modern western, hiring Austin to write the screenplay for this instead of his own script.

True West is one of those pieces that left me now quite sure what I thought of it. On the one hand it's easy to see how it's become an iconic American story: Hollywood is for many people the very definition of the American Dream, but then you could argue that so is the call-of-the-wild image of a man alone communing with, and conquering, nature. So there's a credence to the initially unlikely notion that Austin would to some degree wish himself in Lee's tattered shoes. And this is all wrapped up in an epic sibling rivalry played out on an intimate scale, a family drama with the threat of violence constantly barely below the surface.

But at the same time I felt at something of a remove throughout. Shepard's structuring of the play is impressive but I felt I was admiring it from the outside rather than being sucked in. This may have been in part due to the relentless intensity - from about half an hour in every scene feels climactic, and after a while this becomes exhausting to watch.

This isn't to detract from Breen's spot-on production, which fires on all cylinders. Max Jones' widescreen set, with the curtains sliding together like black bars for the scene changes, enhances the cinematic effect. And the leads are excellent - as Ian said in the interval, nobody can do a death glare quite like Ferns, and O'Hare sweats buckets as the restrained writer trying to break out into a creature of undisguised emotion like his brother. It's undoubtedly a stellar production but I was left unable to deny the play itself is good, without ever really feeling it: A wildly emotional piece of work that ironically played to my mind but not my emotions.

True West by Sam Shepard is booking until the 4th of October at the Tricycle Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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