Sam Shepard’s modern American classic, True West, was originally performed in 1980s San Francisco. Essentially, it is a play of two seemingly contrasting brothers, Austin and Lee, trying to out-do one another. LA is the backdrop, and the movie industry is the target, using the ‘get rich quick’, ‘easy come, easy go’ nature to outline the flaws in the American Dream. Austin (Eugene O’Hare) is a screenwriter looking after his mother’s house, about to have his big break, when his drifter brother, Lee (Alex Ferns), shows up. Lee gets cosy with Austin’s producer, Saul (Steven Elliot), and convinces him to produce his idea for a western instead of Austin’s period romance. As a play, it is funny and tense, but I couldn’t help feeling a lack of connection to the subject: why is this play about the evils of Hollywood being performed in London in 2014? It didn’t shed any light on uncovered ground, but then a performance doesn’t have to be didactic, and can just be performed because it’s enjoyable, dramatic or cathartic. This is where the performance did nothing for me.
Some positives: the set design by Max Jones was solid and naturalistic, with a cinematic quality of a slanted floor and ceiling, making the room feel bigger. The theatre’s curtains that rose from the floor and dropped from the ceiling were kept in a position that made the stage look like a widescreen movie, an effective design that was a constant reminder of location and theme. The actors, particularly the leads, O’Hare and Ferns, do a fine job presenting thoroughly unlikeable characters and making them sympathetic at times.
There was one key problem that plagued this performance: dramatic pauses. Every three lines or so would be followed by a staring contest, which as you can imagine, gets old fast. I’m sure director Phillip Breen had many reasons as to why the silences were there. My own interpretation is that it was mirroring the western genre that the characters were writing. However, it felt more like they took the movie style too far and the video was buffering. Silence in theatre can be a powerful technique, but there needs to be a motif or subtext behind it. Either it is a stylised production, or the characters are clearly thinking something. In this case, it just looked as if the actors had forgotten every other line.
The second half was like a different performance, and this was a good thing. It felt almost farcical with a much-needed injection of energy, and I enjoyed it much more. However, the final scene with Lee and Austin’s mother (Barbara Rafferty) coming home went back to the pacing of the first half, and felt all the more worse after being exposed to the dynamic side of this production. In this instance, they should have taken the western theme further and had tumbleweed roll across the stage; you could feel the audience fidgeting, desperate for the anti-climactic and inconsequential scene to end.
It all felt quite irrelevant. The play seemed out of context and the subject matter was hardly a revelation, so in this situation, you look for the entertainment value. Unfortunately, a solid and potentially entertaining performance is ruined by a directorial decision that mars the audience’s enjoyment of the play.
True West is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 4 October. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website. Photo by Pete Le May.