True West

by Sam Shepard, directed by Phillip Breen

A modern classic by one of America’s most renowned living playwrights, exposing the cracks in the American Dream.

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The good boy and the outlaw square up to each other and the result is not pretty in Sam Shepard’s 1980 play. It gets a searingly good – and often very funny – revival by Phillip Breen, which arrives at the Tricycle by way of Glasgow’s Citizens theatre.

Eugene O’Hare brings just the right touch of Ivy League prissiness to Austin, a young, ambitious screenwriter on the verge of his first big success who is holed up in his mother’s Hollywood home. But the quiet is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Austin’s drifter brother, Lee, a petty thief fresh from the Mojave desert. There is something wonderfully feral about Alex Ferns’s performance (...) More frightening is his violence, which erupts like an unpredictable volcano and brings chaos in its wake.

Soon ancient sibling scars are bleeding as Lee swipes a movie deal from under his brother’s nose, selling it to a producer who loves the “authenticity” of his stories. But it’s far more than sibling rivalry which is under the microscope, and Breen knows it in a production where the scenes are framed in a way that suggests the eye of the movie camera. It’s a revival which always holds its nerve. There are pauses here that lesser actors might fall into and entirely disappear, but O’Hare and Ferns are always right on it as the brothers who seem so different but who are connected by the memory of a drunken, absent father.

This is a play not just about selling American dreams, or even the collapse of the American dream, or the collapse of the American family. Everything is trashed here, not just the kitchen. When Lee takes a club to the typewriter, it is culture that comes off worse. Beyond the ruins, the coyotes howl. But the beast is within, eyeballing itself.

The Guardian

Sam Shepard himself has rightly praised Phillip Breen’s brilliant small-scale production of Shepard’s seminal 1980 play, first seen at Glasgow’s Citizens' Theatre last year. (…)

(…) O’Hare, wound up tight as a spring, plays Austin, a screenwriter desperate for his latest idea to be commissioned by a studio. Ferns is the filthy thief Lee, the whites of his eyes showing from the off, every peculiarly slowed-down gesture suggestive of a punch at the end of it – a Pinteresque touch.

Austin is house-sitting their mother’s LA home, whose Seventies kitchen living room is intricately rendered by designer Max Jones. Lee turns up to torment him, which he does most effectively by persuading a producer that Austin has been courting for months that his own idea for a movie is better than Austin’s.

As the brothers kick and smash about the American dream (Lee favours golf clubs for this activity), Shepard’s play feels bigger than a dissection of this favoured subject of both his and indeed much of 20th-century American literature. Yes, the dream is a cruel lie, Austin as keen to escape its seductions for oblivion in the desert at the play’s end as Lee pretends to be at its start. But these two men are also just two overgrown boys from any place and time, ruined by an alcoholic father.

Their tragedy is, with almost Shakespearean expertise, magnified by hilarity as Shepard swoops characteristically between the two in the second half. The scene when Austin returns having stolen all the neighbourhood’s toasters has to be one of the most hysterical ever conceived. Both Ferns, who is an adept physical comic, and O’Hare, foaming at the mouth, had the audience in stitches – but then, moments later, with both characters working so hard to mask their existential despair, they were very nearly making us cry. An enthralling production of a true classic.

The Daily Telegraph

They’re probably still there now. That’s certainly the impression left by Philip Breen’s blistering production of True West (first seen at Glasgow Citizens Theatre) as the curtain draws slowly on the two brothers, eyes fixed on one another, locked in perpetual antagonism. It’s a staging that unleashes the savage power of Sam Shepard’s seminal 1980 play, which opens with a frosty stand-off in a suburban Californian kitchen, passes through something akin to Beckett and ends in the territory of Greek myth.

Shepard’s targets are legion. For a start there is the film industry, dealt with in withering style. Neat, Ivy League-educated brother Austin has been house-sitting for his mother, while working up a tasteful script about a period love story. In rolls his thieving drifter brother Lee, who cosies up to Austin’s producer, bamboozles him with some rambling modern Western story from “real life” and hijacks the deal from under his brother’s nose.

But what makes this a modern classic is Shepard’s distillation of a host of preoccupations about the soul of America into an archetypal wrestling match between two brothers. Austin is the new West, the neat, smart, urban ego; Lee the old West, the wild, tough, rampaging id, the frontiersman with tales of living in the desert. As events heat up and they swap places, Lee pounding disconsolately at the typewriter, Austin rolling drunk on the floor and both brothers destroying the kitchen, Shepard suggests both paths are built on deluded notions of identity.

But it is also absurdly funny and a gift to actors. It’s the detail that makes it. Alex Ferns’ blowsy, dishevelled Lee, his trousers just about sustained around his frame by a rope belt, combines an intense stare with peculiar feline grace, a curiously high-pitched voice and unnerving volatility. Once unleashed, he turns into a roaring, sweaty mountain of flesh. Eugene O’Hare’s excellent Austin matches him step for step, tiny flickers and flinches suggest his alarm. Also impressive are Steven Elliot’s snake-like producer and Barbara Rafferty as Mom, surveying the utter destruction of her kitchen with the serenity of one who owns a well-stocked medicine cabinet.

(…) 

The Financial Times

At about half past seven on Tuesday night at the Tricycle in north London, I had a revelation. (...) It was just the quiet realisation, about 20 minutes into the press night of Sam Shepard's True West, that it really is a very good play indeed.

Now of course I know that Shepard's 1980 drama, about two brothers – an aspiring screenwriter and a thieving drifter – having a wild west-style showdown in their mother's Hollywood house, offers a vision of masculinity in crisis in a land where myth has long turned sour. I also know that it is considered a modern classic. Every piece of theatre publicity for every production I've ever seen of the play has always told me so. Categorically.

It's one of those plays whose status is so assured that to start questioning it feels a bit like asking whether King Lear is any good. But the truth is that, although I've seen some adequate productions of True West over the last 30 years, until Tuesday I had never seen a revival that convinced me that the play's modern-classic status was valid. The acting always felt like so much posturing, and until Phillip Breen's thrillingly performed production I never really witnessed the play's text and subtext, metaphor and staged reality firing on all cylinders together. The sense is palpable in this version that the brothers are endlessly chasing each other and an impossible dream.

I missed the famed 1994 Matthew Warchus version at the Donmar with Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternating the roles of good guy Austin and bad boy Lee. Warchus also staged the play in New York in 2000 with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly doing the same. Maybe if I'd seen either of these productions, my eyes would have been opened earlier to the power of Shepard's dark vision.

But I didn't, which made me think that there must be thousands of theatregoers who think Hamlet or A View from the Bridge are a bit rubbish and Three Sisters terribly dull and overrated, because they've just not been lucky enough to see a great revival of these classic plays. So I'd love to hear about the classics you thought you didn't rate and the productions that were a revelation and made you change your mind.

The Guardian Theatre Blog

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