IN THE MIDDLE of the 20th century, the great Arthur Miller set out to prove that mighty tragedies could be written about the lives of ordinary Americans.
True West - Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
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It’s much more difficult, though, to work out what is going on a generation later in the plays of Sam Shepard; with Shepard, the tragedy of broken American dreams seems to have shifted into a wild theatre of cruelty, fiercely ironic, sometimes surreal, and often exploding into passages of bitter comedy.
It’s through this maelstrom of tragic feeling and grotesque laughter that Phillip Breen tries to navigate his new production of Shepard’s 1980 play True West for the Citizens’ Theatre; and if the journey hits a few sandbanks, it still remains a tremendously vivid and disturbing experience.
True West is the story of an encounter between two brothers in their thirties.
Austin is a clean-cut and ambitious young screenwriter, who has left his wife and kids in Northern California for a week to house-sit his mother’s home near Los Angeles; his shambolic older brother Lee is a sharp-witted, hard-drinking down-and-out who bullies Austin into helpless compliance, effectively steals his career as a screenwriter, and then conspires with his increasingly distraught brother in wrecking their mother’s home.
As American stories go, in other words, this one has almost everything; the tension between wild pioneering spirit and Puritan conventionality, the failure of mature masculinity, the imagery of the encroaching desert as coyotes howl around the suburban house, and the powerful role of the film industry as a vehicle and focus for American dreams.
And this production often perfectly captures that atmosphere of a culture framing and filming itself, not least through Max Jones’s powerful set, which places the domestic scene between two giant vertical shutters that close sharply between scenes.
As the story progresses, and the clash between the two brothers becomes ever more destructive, Breen’s production seems to lose its rhythm slightly.
Even Alex Ferns’s terrific, compelling and threatening performance as Lee begins to look a shade repetitive, over a long final hour of shouting and drunk-acting; and many in the audience simply roar with laughter, as if the play were a loud Hollywood sitcom.
In the final scene, though, the sense of gravitas and dark poetry begins to return; and we are left with an unforgettable image of two men facing one another in a room that is no longer home, while the great unseen landscape of the west stretches beyond them as cliché and dream, utterly indifferent to their fate.