Harry Bignell reviews True West at Vaudeville Theatre.
My initial thought upon taking my seat at the Vaudeville Theatre is how the clever use of set wall angles sucks the audience into the pokey front room of the house in Southern Carolina where Sam Shepard’s True West plays out. As the audience file in, Kit Harington as Austin is sat smoking cigarette, the smell of which gradually wafts across the audience, creating the sensation that you are sat in the front room next to him.
The cleverly constructed set aside, True West is a challenge, seemingly for the actors as well as the audience.
For the actors the challenges comes in making the intensely fluctuating characterization of both brothers real. Austin and Lee both open the somewhat slow starting play as fairly stereotypical characters; the diligent younger brother who moved away to make a career for himself as a writer and start a family in North America and the waste of space older brother who makes a living through stealing and dog fighting and spent months in the desert finding himself.
Part way through the performance, the play gains a little more momentum as the roles are reversed as Austin descends into an alcohol fueled wreck after Lee after Lee steals a Hollywood opportunity from under his nose and then has to grapple with the complexity of constructing a script.
Both Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn embrace each side of these characters convincingly and confidently. In a departure from tradition for Harington, who is typically cast as broody and pouting lead, he portrays the character of uptight and uncertain Austin in his ill-advised shorts and slicked back hair both sensitively and humorously. He is also funny and endearing as the alcohol fueled Austin of later scenes, obsessing over the perfect slice of toast made in the toasters he drunkenly steals alongside his ne’er do well older brother.
Similarly, Flynn seems at home in the role of aggressive and irascible Lee who has failed to make much of his life and is suddenly presented with an opportunity which he lacks the intelligence, confidence or conviction or intelligence to seize. Neither actor experienced an accent slip of cringing magnitude and predominantly manage to portray the tense and unpredictable relationship between the brothers we.
From an audience perspective this play defies succinct summary or even definition. It is a tale of sibling rivalry, it is a tale of self-discovery and destruction, it is both or perhaps it is neither! Just when you think you have grasped the point, when you decide that Lee’s classic western film script where two men chase each other straight through the night – “Not knowing. And the one who’s chasing doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he is going” – is a metaphor for the brothers themselves, the play redefines itself entirely by introducing another event or entity such as the seemingly inexplicable appearance of the brother’s mother.
Perhaps there was a deeper significance to the appearance of this new character so close to the end, I was too preoccupied with trying to work out what Madeline Potter’s accent was meant to be to give it too much thought.
Her appearance signifies the point at which the play becomes really obscure. The brother’s highly factious relationship descends into a fight in among the wreckage of their mother’s house.
If you adhere to the theory that this play is really about two sides of one troubled man’s psyche, his mother’s line about not recognizing her home with him in it anymore becomes very poignant. If you interpret the play as a depiction of the volatility of sibling dynamics then the fight at the end becomes an extreme example of the powder-keg esq nature of forcing two such different individuals into one claustrophobic and provocative environment. If, however, you take the play at face-value as I did, the end may feel chaotic, confusing and ultimately a little unsatisfying.
To conclude a review that has been sprawling as True West itself, I can only surmise that this play is a headscratcher.