Matthew Dunster directs Sam Shepard’s piercingly funny and powerfully intense modern classic, ‘True West’, in a perfectly pitched production that will just about “knock your lights out”.
Set in the heat of the Californian desert, ‘True West’ follows brothers Austin and Lee as they are pitched in a cat-and-mouse style race of sibling rivalry as they strive after the American Dream.
At the start of the production, Austin comes out onto the stage a few minutes before the production begins, and sits at his typewriter, where we see straight away the daily struggles of a writer. When the play begins, he turns out all the lights, and lights a single candle. In the fleeting darkness in between his doing so, his brother Lee stands at the back of the set, before slowly walking into focus, and turning the lights back on. The two brothers have not seen each other for some time. We learn that their mother is in Alaska, and has charged Austin with looking after her house, and watering her plants. Lee, on the other hand, appears to have been living a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, during which time he spent three months in the desert, with few visitors, and only a pitbull for company, which he would enter into dog fights in order to earn money. He is reluctant, however, to go into any further detail.
Austin has been working on a movie script, that he has sold to Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer. The two have been corresponding for several months, and their first meeting is imminent. Austin lends his car to Lee to get him out the way for their meeting, but Lee comes back earlier than expected, and he and the producer, both with their larger-than-life personalities, hit it off. So much so, in fact, that a convincing Lee pitches his own story to Kimmer, who picks this up in favour of Austin’s script. Even worse, they decide amongst them that Austin should write this script. This is particularly timely today, as it exploits the fickle brutality, the uncertainty, and the instability of this industry, at a time when such traits are worse than ever. However, what this also does is exposes the cracks in the brothers’ relationship, setting them on a path that will have far-reaching consequences.
Eventually, however, after much anger on the part of Austin, heralding the first few times we see him really raise his voice and slam things down (actions more befitting of Lee’s character), the two brothers agree to work together, and they head into the second half of the play, partners.
The second half of the production marks, however, a transformation in both our lead characters, as interestingly, they seem to transition into the characteristics of each other, in a reversal of roles. As mentioned, at the start of the production, Austin sat at the typewriter, desperately trying to think, whilst Lee frequently interrupts him, drinking bottle after bottle of alcohol. Now, it is Lee who sits at the typewriter, whilst Austin lies on the floor, bottle in hand, singing and dancing. It is not long before the frustrated Lee is up on a stool, smashing the typewriter with a golf club, whilst Austin makes an absurd amount of toast, using 8 toasters that he has lined along the front of the stage, after stealing them, having taken an earlier passing comment from Lee as a challenge.
A now desperate Lee pleads to Austin for help, and the two finally reach an accord – that Lee will share both money and credit with Austin, and allow him to travel with him when they are done, provided Austin writes the script. Just when they seem to be on a role, however, Lee skipping around Austin as he dictates to him his story, another walks in on them – Mum. Lee stops dead in his tracks, and Austin jumps up, surprised. It appears she has come back from Alaska earlier than expected, as she was missing her plants. When Austin explains the state of the house, explaining that they were celebrating the success of Lee’s story, and that he was helping to write the script on the basis that he is to go and live in the desert with Lee when it is all over, Mum begins to tell him that he would not survive out their, and to Austin’s bewilderment, Lee joins in, hinting that he is to go alone, and sooner than expected. The two brothers begin to fights, whilst Mum, aloof, detached almost, breezily tells them to stop, as though fed up after years of pulling the two apart – and we get the sense that this is not the first time they have fought and, as with most, if not all, siblings, probably will not be the last, regardless of their age. Their fighting soon takes a sinister turn, however, when Austin takes up a telephone cable, and we are reminded of Lee’s earlier quote, adding a severity to their primitive fighting, and that is, that people are most likely to be killed by “family people. Brothers”.
At the end of the production, a wall of the set is lifted, to reveal the desert expanse beyond. Austin stumbles onto the plain, pursued by Lee. The two round on each other, and face each other for a moment, before slowly walking towards one another. At first, it seems as though they are about to embrace, in a brotherly show of reconciliation. However, what they do is infinitely more surprising than that – they appear to walk into each other, and become one. Although seemingly very different at the start of the production, the transformation of the two brothers, this role reversal, sees them end up becoming acutely similar, morphing into one another metaphorically, and now physically at the play’s close.
Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn give searing central performances as warring brothers Austin and Lee. Mightily impressive and powerfully engaging, with compelling stage presence, the two perfectly capture the delicate chemistry of these two older brothers, locked in a sibling rivalry, in a jealous competition, and often, in a struggle for power. Despite their fleeting appearances, Donald Sage Mackay and Madeleine Potter are very watchable in their roles as producer Saul Kimmer, and Mum.
Jon Bausor’s intricately detailed set is particularly noteworthy, as soon as one enters the auditorium. Te set takes the form of a house interior, with a kitchen towards the back of the stage, opening out into a living space at the front. Bausor’s clever, almost illusory manipulation of dimension means that the kitchen, slightly narrower, and just off cetnre, give the imrpession of its being further away, whilst the living space, jutting out slightly over the edge of the stage, opens out into the auditorium, engulfing its audience, inviting, ushering us into this home, and consequently into to the lives of characters Austin and Lee. The set is incredibly detailed – from the kitchen appliances on the surfaces, the dishes on the draining board, and the antique plated suspended from the walls, to the padlocked cabinets, the small television set, the brown leather swivel chair, the house plants and cacti, and the round desk, upon which lies a typewriter. This house is real, alive with the essense of its inhabitants, giving the very real sense that it is ‘lived in’.However, despite this abundance of props – the furnishings, objects and household appliances – everything is neat and organised, in its place.
However, for the play’s second half, scrumpled up paper, beer cans and cigarette butts litter the space, the plants left for dead, a transformation echoing that of the play’s two lead characters.
With this level of detail, amongst this seemingly domiciliary environment, it might be possible to forget that this play is set in the Californian desert. However, we are powerfully reminded of this towards the end of the production. The wall on the left-hand side side of the stage is raised, revealing the desert landscape beyond. A small section of desert has been erected, however the sand dune-style levels, and the clever use of lighting, give us the sense of a vast panorama, and limitless expanse. This piece of the set lies in stark contrast to the detailed interiors, as we are vividly pitched into the barren and, with the exception of cacti, featureless desert. Our two characters, and therefore the audience along with them, are released from the domestic confines of the house, and there is a sense that our characters would feel more at home in this environment. Lee has spent 3 months in the desert, and Austin wishes to join him out there. Perhaps it is possible that such an environment attributes to them a freedom that the trappings of domestic life cannot afford them. Although Lee doesn’t fully reveal what he got up to when in the desert, what is clear was that he got by out there, he survived. And Austin, at the end of the play, strives for a release from the pressures of endlessly trying to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, and from the pressures of the fickle industry he is trying to break into. When the cracks begin to show in their lives, their homes, their own family unit, we can possibly relate to their temptation to want to leave it all – the business of modern domestic life and its material trappings – behind.
Joshua Carr’s lighting design adds further to this sense of realism. Whilst the lights in the house are typical of artificial lighting, the light that is projected through the left-hand wall is uncannily natural-looking, with an ability to mimic the moonlight, and the setting and rising sun, using a plethora of colours – from blue, to orange, to yellow – in doing so, again reminding us that we are not in a built-up urban environment, with its many lamp posts – we are in the midst of the desert.
What becomes clear as the production progresses, is how closely matched the brothers’ lives and interactions with each other are with Lee’s story. Lee describes two men chasing each other across the desert – the man out in front not knowing where he is going, and the man following not knowing where he is being led. Both are afraid, but believe themselves to be alone in their fear, ignorant of the fear of the other. When their cars run out of gas, they hop on conveniently placed horses, and continue riding, continue chasing each other. This seems to be a metaphor for our two brothers. However, the question is, which of them is out in front, and which behind? Is the first being pursued, and the second the pursuer? Or, is the first a leader, and the second a follower? Does it alter as the play progresses, do they switch places at any point? In times of darkness, do they catch up with each other, overtake each other, even? Although their lives have taken them down separate, and very different paths now, they talk of a time when they were younger, and they both wondered what it would like to be the other. They were chasing after each other, without realising it, and without knowing the other was doing the same. Therefore, their race seems to have formed a cycle, as they chase each other round in circles with no finite end, whilst simultaneously both moving forwards, chasing after the flawed and elusive ideology of the American Dream.
Another running theme that separates the two brothers is their understanding of what constitutes ‘real life’, shaped, moulded, by their own lives and experiences, a fact evident in their very different stories, – Austin’s, full of literary jargon, Lee’s gritty and honest. Austin makes the point to Kimmer that, while Lee has been out living in the desert talking to a cactus, he has been living among things, among people, observing life, and therefore believes himself to be better placed than Lee, with his ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’ story. In their contrasting views of what ‘real life’ is, writer Shepard skilfully gives us a look at real life. The point is, that life can be as simple or as complex as we wish it to be, and as we choose to make it – neat and organised, full of romantic ideals, clichés and coincidences, or messier, gritty, raw and powerful. That’s the beauty of it, I suppose. And it is a beauty, and a truth, captured within this powerful work.
This play might be lacking in horses, guns, and John Wayne. It might not be a traditional ‘Cowboys and Indians’ tale. And yet, what it does offer is a tale of rivalry, that between brothers, metaphorically chasing each other against a vast and endless desert.
Firmly embedded in a “ring of truth”, this is a Western for today’s generation.