In the first major London revival of a Sam Shepard work since the playwright’s death last year, Matthew Dunster directs the tale of sibling rivalry, True West at The Vaudeville Theatre. Set in the eighties, the themes of this play transpose to modern day America with ease, asking vital questions about success and how to achieve it.
In a typical family condo in Southern California, Ivy League educated screenwriter Austin is housesitting for his mother while she vacations in Alaska, presumably to escape the searing heat which permeates every part of this production. Austin is the American Dream personified, having sold enough screenplays to fund a family, and a home “up north”.
His brother, Lee is the polar opposite in both looks and personality. Where Austin has thrived, Lee has been living in the desert, hustling every buck he has to his name, with a desire, perhaps misplaced, to come to the aid of their drunken and destitute father. It doesn’t take Lee long to hijack Austin’s meeting with a producer, convincing him to back his idea for a screenplay, and so the tables are turned.
It’s often said that Shepard’s writing is Pinteresque in style, and you can see that in True West. Moments of sublime comedy interspersed with violence, or at least the very real threat of it. Also, like Pinter, not everything needs to make complete sense, and not every question needs to be answered, here Shepard dismantles the American Dream through the lens of sibling rivalry and two archetypal American images; the corporate success, and the cowboy.
Kit Harington sheds any hint of his famous screen roles to give Austin a bookish, clean-cut look. The crisp chinos and oversized moustache place us firmly in the correct decade. In the second act, when the character is turned on it’s head, Harington dazzles with a truly accomplished performance. But it is Johnny Flynn, who like his character of Lee, steals the lime light. Lee is violent, unhinged and unpredictable, Flynn plays this with an astounding subtlety, managing to portray a terrifying character through a psychological tilt rather than overt physical force, in a performance that is one of the best to be seen in the West End this year.
True West is a clear testament of the ingenuity of Shepard as a playwright, and this production with it’s impressive staging, creates the American mid-west setting that is required to fully achieve the desired effect. Strong performances and fine directing means True West finds the kind of success that the rival brothers at its core so desperately dream of.