The Good, the Bad and the Writer's Block

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Sam Shepard's True West

Tricycle Theatre | London

directed by Phillip Breen

Who’d bring a golf club to a gunfight? Sam Shepard, that’s who. His True West takes two classic Californian icons - Hollywood and the Badlands - and holes them up together like mangy outlaws. The resulting production by Phillip Breen gives us one heck of a shoot-out, and my do the bullets fly.

Max Jones’ easy-on-the-eye design offers perspective as pleasantly skewed as the characters' sensibilities. The small, split space of a retirement bungalow cleverly preempts the protagonists – one half-wild with plants, the other gleamingly dull. But the fridge door isn’t far from being torn off its hinges. Tina MacHugh’s lighting complements the play superbly, transforming one single set-up from writers’ sanctuary to hellish booze-den and everything in between.

The leads of the play – and they are hardly ever offstage – are brothers Austin and Lee. Austin is an (almost) established screenwriter, typing up a tricky romantic period piece at his mother's California home whilst she's away in Alaska. But there’s a catch, one that any wordsmith with visiting relatives can identify with – his drifter brother Lee has rocked up. From the get-go their relationship provides the simmering haze of a volatile backdrop. Yet the sinister undertones of Lee’s meanderings in the desert isn’t the only thing Austin has to worry about. Lee has a film idea all of his own, and, thanks to gate-crashing a meeting with Austin’s producer, he gets a chance to pitch it. Before we know it Austin’s the one slugging whiskey and contemplating larceny while Lee’s crouching over the typewriter with all the comic confusion of a primate with an iPad.

It’s the characteristics of the brothers that raise the temperature to sweltering proportions. Bookish Austin is a cross between Elmer Fudd and Barton Fink, a man conspicuously apathetic about returning to his wife yet savagely defensive of his work. His brother Lee is more like Wolverine spliced with a homeless minotaur, roaming the stage in a long stained coat with a darkness that subverts even the blackly funny text. Yet all the while he retains a childish wonder, marveling at his skill at golf or his dreams of the big screen.

In much theatre the choreography is obliviously obvious. Lights change, actors straighten, and into the interpretive dance they go. But here Breen and the actors hit a real bull’s-eye by grafting in succulent moments of physical suspension. Torsos swivel, fingers are drawn, keys are plucked with masterful economy – each moment incorporating a witty tableau of famous Westerns. It's as if John Wayne has sauntered into a K-hole, and it's a sensational directorial choice. This theme, the self-aware cowboy, gourmandizes itself brilliantly in potentially one of the greatest Western reviews ever – Lee's description of a man’s irregular affection for his horse in Lonely Are The Brave. Hollywood is toyed with adroitly, and on the difference between a film and a movie we learn: "In our business it's making movies. American movies. Leave the films to the French."

The locomotive pace of the piece barely lags; neither does the billowing emotion ever become too maudlin. Eugene O’Hare’s Austin not only rustles up a singing voice worthy of any campfire, but is often hypnotic, particularly with a tale about his father's false teeth. Yet it is Alex Ferns as Lee who is quickest on the draw; and his draw is spellbinding. His eye gleams like a sixpence spun in the sun, his raging stamina delights while his rasping, somehow delicate voice terrorises.

Towards the play’s end the brothers try to re-write a clichéd line for their new screenplay. “I know this prairie like the back of my hand” is amended to “I am on intimate terms with this prairie.” It’s a dead-on example of that near-invisible line between what is unique dialogue and what is utter bull. Thankfully there’s no such line in this production. Shepard's poetry snags us with the most effortless of tosses, before hogtying us and leaving us as willing captives on the tracks.

photo | ©Pete Le May

#tricycle #samshepard

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