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True West – Review of London Production of Shepard’s play

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Sam Shepard’s True West is a play about vicious sibling rivalry but, as its title suggests, it also deals with the American obsession with westerns and consequently the American Dream, whatever that is.
Two brothers from a dysfunctional family meet in their mother’s house in southern California after many years of separation. Their mother is in Alaska and their father is a down and out bum.
At first glance, the brothers appear to be completely different. The bespectacled Austin (Kit Harington) is an Ivy League university educated writer working on a movie script. He is a scholarly and focused gentleman.
His brother Lee (Johnny Flynn) is a rough-hewn, vulgar, violent petty thief. He is so aggressive and menacing that we expect him or fear that he will strike Austin at any moment. In short, we have a drunken low-life and a civilized human being on the edge of the desert in California.
Saul (Donald Sage Mackay) comes to discuss Austin’s idea for a screenplay. The garrulous, uncouth and almost illiterate drunkard Lee intrudes into the conversation with a cockamamie idea about a western and Saul falls for it. Shepard ridicules the American idea of the western with its ludicrous plots.
Austin loses his composure and becomes jealous and slowly violent at the thought that his Neanderthal brother has in effect replaced him. We see a complete transformation of the two siblings as one takes the place of the other and vice versa.
Their mother (Madeleine Potter) appears. She does not seem to have any effect on the violence that she sees in her children as they fight viciously.
Harington and Flynn do superb work as the two brothers. They must engage is some vigorous physical fighting and emotional highs as they move from one character extreme into the opposite.
Mackay and Potter as the producer (or is he just an agent?) and the mother are small roles that act as catalysts for the transformation and violence we see in the brothers as they change in front of our eyes.
The set by Jon Bausor consists of a kitchen, work area and sitting room in the first half which opens to show us the desert in the final scenes.
Director Matthew Dunster brings out the strengths of the play, especially the violent outbursts and destructive fight sequences. Flynn’s outbursts are scary. The end is ambiguous, but you may have a different opinion. No plot spoiler.
True West is not Shepard’s best play, but it is a highly respectable part of his work and the production is very much worth seeing.
True West by Sam Shepard continues until February 23, 2019 at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London, England.