As a genre I’ve never been particularly fond of the Western. I can see that it has the essence of any basic drama featuring scenes of tension and conflict and probably had Shakespeare been writing in more modern times its mythic quality would have given him the same sort of fuel for his plotlines as did the Wars of the Roses or Roman history plays. I can’t actually think of a Western that’s been staged; the nearest I can come is Oklahoma (and its source Green Grow The Lilacs) and although that uses the tropes of the genre it doesn’t quite fit squarely into it. True West by Sam Shepard also uses some familiar ideas (the maverick outsider, good v. evil, sudden violence) and references iconic settings particularly the desert. These are imposed on a contemporary setting to provide an almost hallucinatory vision of what has become of the cowboy figure.
Two estranged brothers Austin and Lee meet in their mother’s home in an LA suburb; she is currently in Alaska. Austin is a screenwriter and is working on a script – a romance. Lee is a drifter and chancer who lives life on the edge, but he has an idea for a film (a Western, of course) and wants his brother to write it. Meeting some resistance to the idea, Lee manages to persuade Hollywood producer Saul that his idea would be the better investment. Austin’s own screenplay is unceremoniously dumped, and the brothers begin an epic personal battle with each other and the story they are trying to tell. Gradually the two of them fall apart. Fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, they trash the place and, in the process, wreck any chances they have of reaching their goal of the American Dream.
The play is essentially a two hander for the brothers. Alex Ferns is the stuff of nightmares as the horrific Lee. He starts the play as a dishevelled wreck and goes downhill from there. Rarely seen without a drink in his hand (though occasionally he does trade this for a golf club) Ferns’ characterisation simmers and seethes with a hatred for others and himself. As Lee’s volcanic temper explodes in fits of verbal and physical violence, Ferns embodies pure evil as sweat pours off him and he leers at us with a dentally challenged grimace. Essentially the character remains the same throughout – masterfully done though it is, making Eugene O’Hare’s portrayal of uptight , reluctant Austin of rather more interest. O’Hare’s Austin starts off as house proud, mild mannered and working at his own pace on an idea of which he is proud. Then the situation and alcohol get a grip and he finds himself descending into a maelstrom of self-destruction. He is extremely good at conveying the nervous reticence of the writer caught up by events but also does a fine job when the character quickly slides into the degradation which was probably always just below the surface. In the second half he has some exquisite moments as he butters toast as if his life depended on it (you’ll have to watch it to get the point) and emerges as a character that is not so far removed from his brother or from their absentee father – there’s a great rambling anecdote about the latter, his ill-fitting dentures and some chop suey.
A late entrance by Barbara Rafferty as Mom brings the two men down to earth with a jolt. There’s a gloriously comic scene where she disappointedly surveys the destruction of her home and the two men revert to boyhood in front of her and have the embarrassed demeanour of teenagers being caught having a wild weekend party. The fourth character, producer Saul, is played by Steven Elliott. He doesn’t really have too much to do and I rather felt that he was in the play as a plot device than an actual character. That’s no reflection on Elliott, of course who provides a neatly realised performance.
Philip Breen’s direction is beautifully controlled and he skilfully orchestrates moments of explosive tension mixed with compelling silences – just like the gunslingers of old the two brothers repeatedly stare each other out. I suspect this probably works better down the camera lens than it did live on stage, they being essentially filmic moments. This latter is reinforced by having a camera shutter effect operate in between scenes. There’s a great soundscape too courtesy of Andrea J Cox who has the sounds of nature increasingly invading the calm and becoming louder as the air of violence increases. This may be an LA suburb, but the coyotes are certainly howling as if they were on the prairie. Max Jones’s design is also spot on, though my heart goes out to the stage management team who had to clear up and reset after every performance – not to mention finding dozens of toasters (again you’ll have to watch to get the point).
True West is a Pulitzer prize winner and often touted as Shepard’s masterpiece. That’s probably right and why it has attracted star casting on both sides of the Atlantic (Antony Sher and Bob Hoskins did it at the National Theatre). Despite its domestic setting it has an epic quality which this production brings out and shows how people are never far away from a violence that simmers away under a cloak of respectability. The play makes for fine viewing – catch it if you can.
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