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In the beating heart of London’s West End, the Vaudeville theatre houses a new production of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West. Shephard, who died last year, was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being awarded the highest number of Obie awards- ten- given to any writer or director. Director Matthew Dunster steers Shepard’s ship, having also recently directed Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre.
True West explores the antagonistic relationship of two brothers, Austin (Kit Harrington) and Lee (Johnny Flynn) who house-sit their mother’s home whilst she journeys in Alaska. It’s a phallocentric world with barely a whisper of women. The brothers’ personal spheres are governed by divisive binaries; one with an affinity to the North and the other with the South, one passive and one proud, one Blonde and one Brunette, one dressed in Red and one dressed in Blue. Austin is a tireless playwright, and we meet him hunched over the breakfast table as the light flickers from late night to early morning. The stage cleverly condenses the living room and kitchenette with proportional trickery, squashing the home into something like a three-dimensional postcard, making each action visible even from a top-tier seat in the gods.
Flynn, the former folk musician and contemporary of Laura Marling, plays up Lee as a yappy, desert-dwelling thief with an inferiority complex stemming from Austin’s Ivy League credentials.
He berates his brother’s idle trade as a writer before adding, “I fooled around with art… it was ahead of its time.” After Lee successfully pitches a Western movie to Austin’s producer, the respective roles of the two brothers shift, underscored by Lee wearing Austin’s blue shirt from the previous scene. Lee recounts a section from his pitch in the story of two cowboys on horseback, observing that, “the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going”. It’s a weak, strung-out metaphor for the aimlessness of the two brothers.
As they become increasingly estranged from their earlier vocations, the stage morphs into an agglomerated living room-desert, complete with a dusty neon sign. Unfortunately, there are moments where dramatic tension and metaphor fall flat, telling rather than showing. Extended pauses are filled with crickets as a metaphorical trope which fails to incite any more than tedium and there’s a frustratingly cliched air as Austin concludes, “There’s nothing real down here Lee… least of all me.” This considered, Harrington gives an excellent performance, showing tremendous contrast through Austin’s neurotic spiral into thieving, obsessive toast making, and depersonalisation.
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