mon 03/08/2020

True West, Vaudeville Theatre review - sizzling take on seminal Sam Shepard | reviews, news & interviews

True West, Vaudeville Theatre review - sizzling take on seminal Sam Shepard

True West, Vaudeville Theatre review - sizzling take on seminal Sam Shepard

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn go hell for leather as savagery-prone siblings

Brothers-in-war: Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn in 'True West'Marc Brenner

Don't be deceived by Kit Harington's matted, slicked-back hair that is immediately visible the minute the audience enters the boisterous West End revival of True West. By the time the director Matthew Dunster's production has roared to a close two hours later, pretty much nothing is still intact, its leading man's locks included. That's as it should be with Sam Shepard's now-iconic 1980 play that I actually saw somewhat by chance during its world premiere engagement in San Francisco in 1980 and have returned to many times since. 

Now marking its commercial London debut (previous local showings have been scattered amongst various subsidised houses), True West remains a scintillating acting exercise for two high-voltage performers, which it certainly boasts in the joint presence of stage-trained TV name Harington (from Game of Thrones) and the lesser-known if invaluable Flynn. And in light of the unexpected death last year of the once London-based author-actor, the production feels like an ad hoc tribute of sorts. Certainly, there were enough Shepardians of various stripes (from the actor Stephen Rea to the director Nancy Meckler) in attendance on press night to lend an in memoriam sense of occasion as regards a talent who may have passed on but whose work remains ever-mutable. Johnny Flynn as Lee in 'True West'Departing from the approach taken both sides of the Atlantic of late, Dunster doesn't have his leading men swap over in the Odd Couple-ish roles of the ostensibly fastidious Austin (Harington) and the wildman brother, Lee (Flynn, pictured above), who arrives unexpectedly, wreaking havoc as he goes. And as if to confirm a gathering interest in the writing itself, New York is about to get its own True West reappraisal, also directed by a Brit (James Macdonald): Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano are the combatants for that pairing, though the play does rope in two other characters  – both of whom are exceedingly well-played this time out. 

Is the screenwriter Austin truly visited one cricket-filled evening by elder brother Lee, who has his own ideas about the difference between movies and art and (like anyone within shouting distance of La La Land) has a screenplay he'd love to see brought to life? Or is the one conjuring the other, much as a fragile psyche can be upended when least expected by intrusions of multiple kinds? Shepard's play has always kept one foot in the narrative here-and-now and another on a more elemental, allusive plain, and Dunster honours both halves of that equation alongside a physical production that springs its own surprises near the end. (Joshua Carr's lighting crackles as fiercely as the text itself.)

Madeleine Potter in 'True West'At first, I wasn't entirely sold on either star: Harington seemed a shade too recessive as the busy writing bee seen hard at work at the start, while Flynn, his voice suggesting the toll that the show must already be taking, seemed so strung-out that one wondered where he had left to go. But once these two Englishman get over the inevitable accent hurdles, both settle into a finely-tuned stride. Note the way in which Flynn, appearing taller than one might think, allows sudden moments of reflection  – anxiety even  – to shadow Lee's bravura as the two men start to meld into one another before coming out the other, opposing side. (Not for nothing does Austin reference them "sort of echo[ing] each other".) Harington, far better served here than he was a season or two ago in the dismally trendy Doctor Faustus, all but grows in stature as he acquires a power (some might say ferocity) Austin may not have known he has. 

You feel the textual nod to Pinter in the ready slide from comedy to menace, and Flynn has a formidable way with a golf club that should serve him well on the capital's meaner streets after dark. But Shepard goes his own way in a physical absurdism that likes nothing more than to lay waste to toasters and in the inimitable shifts in tone provided by Donald Sage Mackay, as Lee's film world mentor and golfing partner, and the wonderful Madeleine Potter, who, playing the boys' vaguely oblivious mum, returns after an extended period away to her trashed home only to find that the plants she was missing have died anyway. (Potter is pictured above)

Some will resent the appearance of stagehands to re-set the various scenes (so what?, says I), and the history of this play is so star-heavy that it's difficult in some circles to view it as anything more than an opportunity for unbridled theatrics  – which is among the reasons, of course, why True West was made-to-order for the go-for-broke Chicagoans (John Malkovich amongst them) who first put the play on the New York map after an earlier, ill-fated Off Broadway run. You never once doubt the commitment of Harington and Flynn to the warped symbiosis of a world alive to its own kind of poetry (I love Austin referring to "the time of morning when coyotes kill people's cocker spaniels") but energised in the final analysis by no shortage of pain.

Kit Harington all but grows in stature as he acquires a power (some might say ferocity) Austin may not have known he has


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters