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True West Review: Battle For The Stage

14 December 2018 Natasha Healy

Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West has graced stages across the US numerous times, but this most recent rendition, directed by Matthew Dunster, marks the first time the play has been performed on a West End stage.

The action revolves around the tense relationship between two siblings, straight-laced Austin and reckless Lee, played by superstars Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn respectively. The play opens with Austin working at a typewriter, immediately introducing two of the play’s most important themes: creative frustration and the search for self. The interruption of his ne’er-do-well brother is symbolic of the play’s overarching idea – that creativity and self-determination are constantly influenced by family dynamics. The brothers quickly enter into the vicious jostling that characterises the whole performance and whilst the actors’ American accents seem a stretch for the first scene or two, they soon ease into them.

The actors do well to create palpable tension, keeping the audience on edge, unsure whether the brothers are going to laugh or scream at each other. In fact, there is a surprising amount of comic content throughout the play, first from Lee and then from Austin as he loosens his uptight persona. A sequence in which Austin falls about the stage drunk produces plenty of laughs – but also feels slightly slapdash. By the end, Austin’s character arc takes him to a very different place to the Austin of the beginning of the play, and it could have been more delicately handled; as it is, it felt rushed.

The play provides the two actors with plenty of scope to flex their dramatic muscles, and this is both its strength and weakness. Although the repartee between the brothers showcases the actors’ impressive talent, it also sometimes seems to become a battle to command the stage. Yet however much the brothers’ characters sometimes take second place, the adept staging and music continually pulls the audience back to the setting of the western American deserts. The unrelenting heat is perfectly translated through carefully chosen orange and blue tones as well as strategically placed lights that mimic the baking sun, details which mirror the intensity of the brothers’ relationship as well as their frayed tempers. The razor-sharp scenes are cut with atmospheric music, heavy with the twang of country guitar, partly composed by Flynn himself.

Whatever the play’s shortcomings, the depth and nuance of the sibling rivalry is the performance’s greatest success. Whilst there are plenty of scenes of high drama in which the brothers scream at and antagonise each other, the moments in which the actors shine are those of quiet camaraderie, when the actors’ competition to own the stage and the brothers’ battle to be dominant in the relationship falls away.

True West, Friday 23 November 2018 – Saturday 23 February 2019, Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London WC2R 0NH

Eager to see Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn as Sam Shepard's warring brothers? Enter to win True West tickets.

Images: True West via Facebook
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