Just pipping its Broadway counterpart, with a similarly all-star cast of Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, Dunster’s production of the 1980 classic True West is the first major revival of a Sam Shepard play since his death in the summer of 2017. Despite this being its first West End outing - a surprising feat for such a merited work - Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn are only the most recent in a long line of showbiz royalty to have taken on Shepard’s warring brothers. It is easy to see why; on paper these two incredibly rich characters provide plenty of base material in words alone.
Austin (Kit Harrington) is an educated playwright, clad in Walmart shirts and uncomfortably short shorts; he is the perfect antithesis to older brother Lee’s boisterous, childlike, and often downright unlikeable nature. Seeking creative solitude whilst housesitting for his mother (played by Madeline Potter, who makes the briefest of appearances at the very end of the second act), Austin finds himself locked in an intense battle of wills with Lee - the outcome of which, as we see, is rather catastrophic.
Shepard’s concept is characteristically complex. The warring brothers take on a legendary air of Cain and Abel or Romulus and Remus - though in reality the play is far more concerned with deconstructing myth than it is propagating it. In a cataclysmic breakdown of reality, we witness a sudden personality exchange (followed by devolution altogether) as golf clubs are raised and the typewriter is smashed. This works in an oddly functional combination of comedy and melancholy. We see the mutual longing for the American mid-west of John Wayne films, that has since become domesticated, and, although the play’s overarching disdain for the LA metro elite is somewhat outdated in the twenty-first Century, it nevertheless inspirits the timeless human desire to escape.
Dunster’s interpretation lacks some of the precision for which Shepard was famous as a director, however, and in such a chaotic narrative it begins to show. The eternal ping-pong dialogue becomes somewhat monotonous by the second half and Austin’s drunken shouting appears to refuse many of the subtleties which are so masterfully performed before the interval. Nevertheless, for all the toaster-popping, fire-burning, cricket-chirping madness, the dialogue remains remarkably controlled. The frenzy is thankfully relieved with the occasional moment of well-crafted tension in which the performances of both Flynn and Harrington truly come to life. Unfortunately, however, some imagination is still required to picture the two as brothers.
The production is most effective in its intricate creation of the surreal, much of which can be attributed to Jon Bausor’s ingenious set design. The set not only replicates 80s aesthetic to perfection, but, through a creative use of forced perspective, invokes a sense of being off. The entire back wall will eventually disappear to reveal an ersatz desert that provides the setting for the play’s dramatic conclusion. Ian Dickinson’s sound design is also to be commended, using twangy guitar (partly composed by none other than Flynn himself) to separate the otherwise rambling dialogue into several jarring episodes.
It is through the production that True West differs from your everyday Miller or Williams. It embraces the abstract and the bizarre in such a way that it can be interpreted as one extended allegory. Furthermore, whilst Dunster’s interpretation may not completely echo Shepard’s original vision, there are certainly enough highlights to make it worth seeing.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford
At the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until 16 February