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True West


Sydney Theatre Company and UBS Investment Bank present TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard at Wharf 1.

First, my prejudices: Sam Shepard is one of three of the great living American playwrights, in my estimation. Edward Albee the greatest and David Mamet, the other member of the trinity.

TRUE WEST(198O) by Sam Shepard follows the family sagas of CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1976) and the Pulitzer prize winning BURIED CHILD (1979). It has been regarded as the final episode in a ‘family’ trilogy, although A LIE OF THE MIND (1987) seems, to me, a clincher to the Shepard family saga exploration. A quartet, then!! Then again, most of the Shepard repertoire has powerful bio-graphical echoes and might all be considered ‘family’ plays of a sort. Look at the recently performed FOOL FOR LOVE (at the Downstairs Belvoir) and family and personal relevancies resonate out of the material.

‘Go West’, the era of the pioneers of the European invasion (settlement) shouted out from the ports and cities of the east coast. In response the pursuit of the American Dream rolled out across the great landscape of the North American country in covered wagons in conflict with the American Indian. The iconic stature of the West was and still is celebrated in the cinematic history of the supplanting civilization, based in California, and the ‘true west’ of the imaginative dreamers of that culture, Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is the setting for the clash between two brothers as they struggle to win the approval and support of the Hollywood producer for a true story. A ‘true to life’ story of two men “a good fifty miles” from the Texan/Mexican border where “they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie… And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going”. A modern true western. Like the play referenced – LONELY ARE THE BRAVE – a story that might create nostalgia but end in a kind of grief.

Austin (Brendan Cowell) is house-sitting his mother’s house, she, mom (Heather Mitchell) is in Alaska (a different frontier), in the outer civilizing settlement-suburbs of Los Angeles on the blurring frontier line between the city and the Mojave Desert, with the agitated pulsing of the crickets and the distinct yapping, dog-like bark of the coyote as musical background. He tries to refine his outline of his idea for a cinematic love story for Saul Kimmer, a Hollywood producer (Alan Dukes), when his brother, Lee (Wayne Blair) arrives (breaks in ) after a three month sojourn in the desert. We meet them in the moonlight and candlelight. Lee leaning against the kitchen sink, mildly drunk, observing Austin at a glass table, hunched over a writing notebook, pen in hand, surrounded by typewriter, stacks of paper, the candle burning on the table.

“Isn’t that what the old guys did?… The Forefathers. You Know…Isn’t that what they did? Candlelight burning into the night? Cabins in the wilderness.” Verbally, the mythologizing memories of the great western American dream of manhood subtly colours what appears on the surface, when one sees the setting of the play, a realistic play – a depth of surreality, classic gothic cowboy movie appears.

This is the first of his many plays that Shepard admits to rewriting until it felt right. And it is a taut, tightly controlled mechanism. The hall marks of his writing artistry: the collection of short sharp sentences contrasted, syncopated with longer expressions of passionate communication, surrounded by instructions for a small pause, pause and long pause, illustrating as accurately as a musical score, the flows and tensions of the sounds and orchestration of the work – the muscularities.

The plays written directly before TRUE WEST, TONGUES and SAVAGE LOVE (1978), both, were pieces designed for voice and percussion, (with Joseph Chaikin). The percussive influence of those works are evident in the layout of the textual and musical ‘notation’ of this script. The construction lessons of the Harold Pinter writing, that Mr Shepard watched and read, whilst living in London in the seventies, along with the sub-textual comic malevolence of the Pinteresque world, evidently, burn through. The textual control, that I much admire, is reflected in a quote that jumped out of me in the Jim Sharman memoir BLOOD & TINSEL, with Lou Reed in conversation “Sam’s the Edward Albee of the Underground.” (p.240).

The two brothers begin in different places. One a struggling artist, the other a wild man from the desert. By the end of the machinations of the play, of the brotherly conflict, as predicted by Lee, Austin has turned into the wild man attempting to extinguish the new found artistry of his brother with a telephone cord around his neck: “You go down to the L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda’ people kill each other most. What do you think they’d say?…Family people. Brothers…Real American type people.” The roles have reversed.

The house at the beginning of the play, the suburban dreamscape of the ordinary American – neat, clean and functional. By the end of the play, distressed with the trashing of the consumer goods across the room, the plants dead, garbage strewed. The American dream buried in the garbage of unrestrained capitalism. True west no longer an aspiration. Maybe where mom has been holidaying, Alaska is now the last frontier of the Forefathers – white expanses of ice , frozen, “I can’t stay here. This is worse than being homeless.” Symbols everywhere. The simplicity and spare exactness of the writing in this play makes the relative clumsy allusions to big themes in Tracy Letts’ AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY look paltry and a dramaturgical amendment- late addition.

I alluded in my review of FOOL FOR LOVE to the other, less realistic reading of the text: the one that this play is an examination of the bifurcation of the personality of Sam Shepard the artist. The struggle of Mr Shepard as the artist: musician, actor, director, playwright and the simple American male dreaming of the mythical American persona of the cowboy, the western pioneer. The divided psyche of the artist Sam Shepard. I witnessed it, personally, when at the Magic Theatre in 1983 I was, fortunately, permitted to watch rehearsals of FOOL FOR LOVE. The artist directing his play, dressed in cowboy boots, hat etc with a ute and horse trailer waiting in the Presidio carpark for his return. The two selves side by side calling each to the other for attention. Referencing the Jungian idea of the conscious ego and the repressed shadow side.

In the notes to the production Mr Shepard asks for the coyote sounds to have a “sense of growing frenzy in the background, particularly in scenes seven and eight…. and should be treated realistically even though they grow in volume and numbers.” In the kitchen, the climax of the play, we have the two brothers, after the murderous struggle with the cord, to “square off to each other, keeping a distance between them. Pause. A single coyote heard in the distance, lights fade softly into moonlight, the figures of the brothers now appear to be caught in a vast desert like landscape. They are very still but watchful for the next move.” Like gunfighters at the OK Corral, in deadly gunfighter positions. “Lights go slowly to black as the after-image of the brothers pulses in the dark, coyote fades.” The naturalistic and the surealistic styles standing together- one enfolded in the other.

This production by Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Mr Hoffman famously playing with John C. Reilly in this play in New York in 2000, alternating the roles of Austin and Lee!!!) comes from a very knowing place. The control of the vision of the play: steady and clear. Mr Cowell gives us a clean-shaven almost ‘preppy’ image of the character, Austin, at the start of the play, as far away from the usual ‘slacker-like’ persona, that one remembers of his Hamlet as possible. The controlled technique of dialect and considered physical characterisation is marvellous in its clarity and consistency – the ego of the artist fully in service to the writer and the story. Discipline in spades. The chartered journey from husband and father, artist to crazy madman, reigned in and calibrated for terrific storytelling. This is better than his work in the film NOISE and that was terrific.

But more interestingly, the maturing development of Mr Blair, as a leading man, as Lee, arrests one’s attention. In TOT MUM one looked at his fine work of character delineation in the many impersonations he created, but the textual requirements were relatively shallow and could easily be fobbed of with caricature. Here, in TRUE WEST, a fully rounded and frighteningly dynamic construction of character flowers. More unpredictable menace (and “bad teeth” as per Mr Shepard’s imagining, think Harry Dean Stanton in the Shepard screenplay PARIS, TEXAS,1984) might have clinched the stakes some more, but, still, an achievement of note.

The casting by Mr Hoffman of Mr Blair, an Indigenouus actor as brother to Mr Cowell had excited my interest to the possible reasons, other than, they were the right actors for the project. That nothing really transpired production-wise was a minor disappointment to my expectations.

Mr Dukes as the catalyst to the brother’s rivalries, Saul Kimmer, is a great support. Ms Mitchell is in fine form. I wonder if the aspect of the Picasso obsession and the white blankness of Alaska could have led to a surrealistic tension to the superficial reality of the mother in her trashed home?

Set is wonderfully, realistically, conceived by Richard Roberts, ably lit by Paul Jackson and costumed by Alice Babidge with the composition and sound design by Max Lyandvert supportive.

This is a good night in the theatre. I would have liked the stakes to have been ratcheted up further and the musical direction in the language and syntax of the ‘score’ of the text delivered in more muscular tension , but then I have powerful images and memories of the Steppenwolf production of TRUE WEST in the off-Broadway presentation at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1982 with Gary Sinise (Austin ) and the truly dynamic John Malkovitch (Lee). One ducked the debris of the house wrecking and shrank back in the sense of the mortal danger of the brother’s rivalries. This is one of my benchmarks of great acting and theatre going experiences. The Sydney Theatre Company production is good, very good, but not, in my experience of it, comparatively, great.

Don’t miss it.

1 replies to “True West”

  1. I can not tell you how fantastic it was to see an indignious and non indigenous actor play brothers… and THEN the diffrence was not a point, issue or even refrenced in the play. Some 'Colour blind' or 'Cross Racial Casting' at its best. Austrlia is still predominatly white (and male) in its representation on stage..any step to shatter this ridculious bias is welcom particulay when as you said actors are cast for being right for the part insead of 'looking' the part…

    Part of me was hopeing that no mention was made in your blog about Blair being indigenious as then we really would have come far as audience members if id didnt even register as odd However highlighting the casting choice actually gives the performance more cedibility for me as it really is proof thatcasting outside the white pallet dose not have to be an obvious politcal statement it in effect for me became 'colour blind.'

    Thanks for the review wich I could have seen the Steppenwolfe version too!

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