Review: True West [2018 –]; Looking Back West, from the Vaudeville Theatre

Aʟʟ ᴏᴜʀ Pᴀsᴛ Rᴇᴠɪᴇᴡs —

a review by the Vulture (soon to have a personal account set up).
(curated by the Crow.)

The Crow: Yes. There’s been a change of plans. Without further ado, I present: the Vulture!

True West

SPOILER LEVELS at MODERATE

“The one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one’s taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”

This line more or less spells out the overriding theme of Sam Shepard’s “True West”, directed here by Mathew Dunster at the Vaudevillle Theatre. Whatever else the play may represent, be that the deconstruction or masculinity, the nature of art, or the decline of the old west, the play is, at its core, about the estranged brothers. And the relationship between the two main characters is what drives the play.

At the start of the play we see one of the two main characters, Austin, played in this production by Kit Harrington. Austin is a successful screenwriter who is staying at his absent mother’s house in the Californian suburbs when his brother, Lee, played by Johnny Flynn, arrives unannounced. Lee is the polar opposite to his brother; while Austin is quiet, successful, educated and timid, Lee is loud, confrontational, on the verge of being illiterate and has spent the last few years as a drifter in the deserts of California. Lee continually distracts and intimidates Austin, who attempts to keep the peace while also working on his new project, which involves meeting Saul, a producer, played by Donald Sage Mackay, who is interested in Austin’s work. However, after Lee manages to convince Saul to meet him for a round of golf, Saul decides to instead to use an idea Lee has for a Western. Austin is, understandably, distraught by this and refuses, despite Saul’s efforts, to write the screenplay for Lee’s movie. From there the brothers go through a role reversal, with Austin becoming drunk and burgling toasters while Lee becomes frustrated at his own inability to articulate his thoughts onto paper. As the bothers become more drunk, and the house becomes more and more dilapidated, both reveal they are deeply unhappy with their lives, and each wishes they had the other’s lifestyle despite both of them being entirely unsuited to it in terms of competence. This all leads to a conclusion which is bleak, ambiguous, and offers no closure for our leads.

As stated before, the strength of the play comes from the characters of Lee and Austin, both of whom are very well written, but also very difficult characters to play. In my opinion the strongest performance in this play by far is from Johnny Flynn as Lee. This is an extremely layered character, and Johnny Flynn balances all aspects of the character to near perfection. As opposed to the more disheveled and “shouty” version of this character seen in previous productions, Flynn’s interpretation is smoother and possesses a genuine charisma, while still managing to appear uncouth, anti-social and capture Lee’s great difficulty in articulating himself. This, in my opinion, works so much better, as it is hard to imagine an established Hollywood producer agreeing to associate with a drifter without any charm. Another aspect Flynn captures perfectly is the threatening nature of the character.

Throughout the play Lee deliberately intimidates his brother and Fynn is, continually, a very subtly menacing figure; which perfectly juxtapositions the character’s moments of extreme vulnerability later in the play. The best example of this is near the end of the first half of the play, during a scene in which Lee dictates his story to Austin, who is writing it to “get back his keys.” Flynn describes a chase scene between two characters across the Texas Panhandle. During this scene Lee gives the speech quoted above and it becomes obvious that this is a metaphor for the brother’s relationship; Lee is chasing Austin’s success but has no idea of what he will do if he accomplishes this, and Austin is desperately trying to shake his brother’s influence on what he sees as his world, but is also entirely aimless as to what he really wants.

Kit Harrington also gives a good performance as the bourgeois Austin, although I feel Harrington’s performance only reaches its full potential during the second half of the play. In the first half he is too loud to be believable as a timid screenwriter, which means his switch to drunken and bitter later on, although performed very well, is not as jarring as it should be.

Donald Sage Mackay, although only appearing briefly, nevertheless gives a memorable performance as cold, business driven film producer who will happily lie, exaggerate and manipulate as long as he sees potential in an idea. He even offers his two cents on the ever popular “film or movie” discussion – which readers will know has been an ongoing debate on this site – “in this business we make movies! American movies! Leave the films to the French!”.

Madeleine Potter appears very briefly near the end as the mother (Mom) of Austin and Lee. It is unclear what purpose she serves to the play and unfortunately Potter does not seem to be sure herself. Despite this she still gives a strong performance as a house-proud woman who is accepting of her children’s behaviour to the point of absurdity. One minor but also rather obvious flaw with Potter’s casting is that she is far too young to be believable as the mother to two adult men of Lee and Austin’s age.

As stated before, many speculate on the meaning of this play. While the obvious answer is that it is about sibling rivalry most believe that there is another underlying theme to it. Sam Shepard was notoriously very withdrawn about his own work so it is impossible to say for sure, but a theory many seem to accept is that the play is a deconstruction of masculinity; and there is a lot of credence to that theory. Both Lee and Austin are what could be considered “manly” in different ways. Austin is a successful family man who generally seems to be considered responsible by the those around him, and is tasked with responsibilities as such. Lee on the other hand is not successful but lives a very cowboy-esque lifestyle, surviving on his own in the desert for several years, and is a dominating presence. Both not only discover that their lives are unfulfilling, but both yearn for the others life without any knowledge of what that lifestyle is really like.

Aside from this, they both continually attempt to undermine the other. Lee frequently uses physical intimidation tactics on his brother and Austin takes every opportunity to demean Lee by mocking his work. This production seems to lean towards an idealized version of the old west. This makes sense as Saul laments that there are no more real westerns, and has such faith in Lee’s work because it has “the ring of truth”.

As in most versions the entire house is condensed into a single room, with the kitchen and writing room being utilized most often. Something unique to this production however was the choice to have the wall to the house lift up to reveal the backdrop of a desert; fitting as Austin’s goal though the final act is for his brother to take him to the desert to live as a nomad. This also fits well with the theme of the death of the old west.

In conclusion, Mathew Dunster manages to revitalize this well-known play in a way which is dynamic and makes use of the fact that this is the first time the play has been performed in a space as large as this. The scene changes are done very fluidly with great utilization of light and sound effects; and our two leads carry this character driven play very well. If you have a chance to see it, and word heavy character pieces are your thing, then I recommend you do.


Final Ratings

THE VULTURE: 7.5/10


Here’s the official poster:


2 thoughts on “Review: True West [2018 –]; Looking Back West, from the Vaudeville Theatre”

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