Digital Theatre captured this seminal revival of Sam Shepard's 1980 play True West when it opened at the Tricycle Theatre, London. Actor and playwright Shepard is best known for his Hollywood acting roles and his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child.
True West tells the story of two brothers, Austin, an earnest screenwriter on the verge of success, and Lee a drifter and petty thief. After Lee hijacks Austin's meeting with a Hollywood producer to pitch his own idea for a trashy Western, the brothers are forced to collaborate and old sibling rivalries and resentments threaten to tear them apart.
Phillip Breen's production, starring Alex Ferns and Eugene O'Hare, was first staged at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre before transferring to the Kiln Theatre in 2015.
The critics were unanimous in their praise. Breen's "brilliant small-scale production of Shepard's seminal 1980 play", grabs us by the jugular, says Serena Davies in the Daily Telegraph. Ferns and O'Hare, have the audience in stitches one moment before nearly making us cry the next in an enthralling production of a true classic.
Shepard modern classic is "a bare-knuckle brawl between old myths and new illusions, civilisation and savagery, creativity and commerce, played out in sibling strife of nerve-jangling violence", says Sam Marlowe in The Times. The slow burn staging pays off in performances that sizzle with resentment and black comedy.
When the good boy and the outlaw square up to each other, the result is not pretty, says Lyn Gardner in The Guardian. But it gets "a searingly good – and often very funny staging" that tackles the violence between two misfit brothers head-on.
Eugene O'Hare, Alex Ferns, Steven Elliot, Barbara Rafferty
Lyn Gardner's Theatre Blog The Tricycle's True West: a classic play gets a classic production After 30 years and numerous versions, I have finally seen why the hype around Sam Shepard's 1980 play is justified. Which revivals have changed your mind about feted works? At about half past seven on Tuesday night at the Tricycle in north London, I had a revelation. There were no angels, and nobody else in the theatre would have noticed. It was just the quiet realisation, about 20 minutes into the press night of Sam Shepard's True West, that it really is a very good play indeed. Now of course I know that Shepard's 1980 drama, about two brothers – an aspiring screenwriter and a thieving drifter – having a wild west-style showdown in their mother's Hollywood house, offers a vision of masculinity in crisis in a land where myth has long turned sour. I also know that it is considered a modern classic. Every piece of theatre publicity for every production I've ever seen of the play has always told me so. Categorically. It's one of those plays whose status is so assured that to start questioning it feels a bit like asking whether King Lear is any good. But the truth is that, although I've seen some adequate productions of True West over the last 30 years, until Tuesday I had never seen a revival that convinced me that the play's modern-classic status was valid. The acting always felt like so much posturing, and until Phillip Breen's thrillingly performed production I never really witnessed the play's text and subtext, metaphor and staged reality firing on all cylinders together. The sense is palpable in this version that the brothers are endlessly chasing each other and an impossible dream. I missed the famed 1994 Matthew Warchus version at the Donmar with Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternating the roles of good guy Austin and bad boy Lee. Warchus also staged the play in New York in 2000 with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly doing the same. Maybe if I'd seen either of these productions, my eyes would have been opened earlier to the power of Shepard's dark vision. But I didn't, which made me think that there must be thousands of theatregoers who think Hamlet or A View from the Bridge are a bit rubbish and Three Sisters terribly dull and overrated, because they've just not been lucky enough to see a great revival of these classic plays. So I'd love to hear about the classics you thought you didn't rate and the productions that were a revelation and made you change your mind. The Guardian **** by Lyn Gardner Sibling rivalry erupts like a volcano.
This searing staging of Sam Shepard’s play tackles the violence between two misfit brothers head-on. The good boy and the outlaw square up to each other and the result is not pretty in Sam Shepard’s 1980 play. It gets a searingly good – and often very funny – revival by Phillip Breen, which arrives at the Tricycle by way of Glasgow’s Citizens theatre. Eugene O’Hare brings just the right touch of Ivy League prissiness to Austin, a young, ambitious screenwriter on the verge of his first big success who is holed up in his mother’s Hollywood home. But the quiet is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Austin’s drifter brother, Lee, a petty thief fresh from the Mojave desert. There is something wonderfully feral about Alex Ferns’s performance, suggesting that Lee has been pulled through a cactus backwards and that the cactus won. More frightening is his violence, which erupts like an unpredictable volcano and brings chaos in its wake. Soon ancient sibling scars are bleeding as Lee swipes a movie deal from under his brother’s nose, selling it to a producer who loves the “authenticity” of his stories. But it’s far more than sibling rivalry which is under the microscope, and Breen knows it in a production where the scenes are framed in a way that suggests the eye of the movie camera. It’s a revival which always holds its nerve. There are pauses here that lesser actors might fall into and entirely disappear, but O’Hare and Ferns are always right on it as the brothers who seem so different but who are connected by the memory of a drunken, absent father. This is a play not just about selling American dreams, or even the collapse of the American dream, or the collapse of the American family. Everything is trashed here, not just the kitchen. When Lee takes a club to the typewriter, it is culture that comes off worse. Beyond the ruins, the coyotes howl. But the beast is within, eyeballing itself. The Daily Telegraph **** by Serena Davies Sam Shepard himself has rightly praised Phillip Breen’s brilliant small-scale production of Shepard’s seminal 1980 play, first seen at Glasgow’s Citizens' Theatre last year. It hasn’t the starry cast that has attracted actors of the ilk of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tommy Lee Jones to its award-baiting rendition of two brothers having a melt-down. But this works in its favour, since Alex Ferns – who, stones heavier and goateed, is near unrecognisable from his days as an abusive husband in EastEnders – and Eugene O’Hare can grab us by the jugular, free of the entanglement of celebrity. This they do from moment one as shutters in front of the stage split to reveal them poised in psychological stand-off (a state we will also leave them in, a modern Cain and Abel frozen in a Hopper-esque scene of American alienation). O’Hare, wound up tight as a spring, plays Austin, a screenwriter desperate for his latest idea to be commissioned by a studio. Ferns is the filthy thief Lee, the whites of his eyes showing from the off, every peculiarly slowed-down gesture suggestive of a punch at the end of it – a Pinteresque touch. Austin is house-sitting their mother’s LA home, whose Seventies kitchen living room is intricately rendered by designer Max Jones. Lee turns up to torment him, which he does most effectively by persuading a producer that Austin has been courting for months that his own idea for a movie is better than Austin’s. As the brothers kick and smash about the American dream (Lee favours golf clubs for this activity), Shepard’s play feels bigger than a dissection of this favoured subject of both his and indeed much of 20th-century American literature. Yes, the dream is a cruel lie, Austin as keen to escape its seductions for oblivion in the desert at the play’s end as Lee pretends to be at its start. But these two men are also just two overgrown boys from any place and time, ruined by an alcoholic father. Their tragedy is, with almost Shakespearean expertise, magnified by hilarity as Shepard swoops characteristically between the two in the second half. The scene when Austin returns having stolen all the neighbourhood’s toasters has to be one of the most hysterical ever conceived. Both Ferns, who is an adept physical comic, and O’Hare, foaming at the mouth, had the audience in stitches – but then, moments later, with both characters working so hard to mask their existential despair, they were very nearly making us cry. An enthralling production of a true classic. As the brother drink themselves insensible and attempt to prove that they can assume each other's roles, their mother's home, once spotless and lush with plants, becomes a beer can-littered gang hut. The plants wither and die. Austin, unused to Nesbitt-style benders, accidentally breaks the fridge door. Lee, enraged by his inability to find a pencil, empties the cupboards and pulls the phone from the wall. And with the curtains closed, Andrea J Cox's soundscape takes on even more significance. Lee finds the chirping crickets and howling coyotes claustrophobic. The wild creatures echo the mounting tension in the kitchen and, by the time the curtain closes on lee foaming at the mouth and smashing his brother's typewriter with a five iron, the coyotes are at fever pitch. Shepard's script is so funny and lightly drawn, and Ferns' and O'Hare's double act so cleverly constructed, that it's not until you are in the car park that it dawns: this is inter-generational family tragedy. The chill comes afterwards, like the brothers' hangovers. Financial Times **** by Sarah Hemming They’re probably still there now. That’s certainly the impression left by Philip Breen’s blistering production of True West (first seen at Glasgow Citizens Theatre) as the curtain draws slowly on the two brothers, eyes fixed on one another, locked in perpetual antagonism. It’s a staging that unleashes the savage power of Sam Shepard’s seminal 1980 play, which opens with a frosty stand-off in a suburban Californian kitchen, passes through something akin to Beckett and ends in the territory of Greek myth. ... It’s the detail that makes it. Alex Ferns’ blowsy, dishevelled Lee, his trousers just about sustained around his frame by a rope belt, combines an intense stare with peculiar feline grace, a curiously high-pitched voice and unnerving volatility. Once unleashed, he turns into a roaring, sweaty mountain of flesh. Eugene O’Hare’s excellent Austin matches him step for step, tiny flickers and flinches suggest his alarm. Also impressive are Steven Elliot’s snake-like producer and Barbara Rafferty as Mom, surveying the utter destruction of her kitchen with the serenity of one who owns a well-stocked medicine cabinet. The Times **** by Sam Marlowe The American Dream is in smithereens by the end of Phillip Breen’s production of this 1980 modern classic by Sam Shepard. A bare-knuckle brawl between old myths and new illusions, civilisation and savagery, creativity and commerce, it’s played out in sibling strife of nerve-jangling violence. Breen delivers spectacular devastation and a giddily unhinged climax, the air full of fury and acrid smoke. Yet the staging, first seen at Glasgow Citizens last year, is a slow burn, the quiet smouldering between explosions exasperatingly drawn out. The payoff is performances from Alex Ferns and Eugene O’Hare that sizzle with long-held resentment, envy and mistrust. Holed up in his mother’s ice cream-coloured LA home while she’s on an Alaskan vacation, the buttoned-up, Ivy League-educated Austin (O’Hare) is attempting to break into the Hollywood movie industry. He’s bashing away at his screenplay on a typewriter when he’s interrupted by his brother Lee (Ferns), a drifter and petty crook just blown in — he claims — from the Mojave desert. Liquored up, volatile and vindictive, Lee hijacks Austin’s meeting with a producer and presents his own cockeyed idea for an “authentic western”. When he demands that Austin help him write it the pair embark on a crazed collaboration that results only in wild destruction. Were it not for his matted Elvis quiff, the hobo-ish Ferns would look like a refugee from a Pinter play — and there’s a Pinteresque quality to the gradual swell of menace here. When he opens his mouth, Ferns is downright creepy, his voice unexpectedly high and wheedling, his expression sly and mean, his pop-eyed outbursts followed by flickers of regret. As O’Hare’s cowed Austin watches Lee steal his golden opportunity as casually as he robs their mother’s neighbours of their TV, his giggling derangement is horribly funny — particularly when, with lunatic sunniness, he obsessively stuffs with bread the dozens of toasters he’s stolen during his ludicrous crime spree. Breen divides the scenes with a pair of black horizontal shutters, giving the action a widescreen appearance; the final frame, with the brothers in an enraged, panting stalemate, leaves us with a memorable, blackly comic image of helplessly thwarted ambition. What's On Stage **** by Michael Coveney The Tricycle has done London theatre a great service in importing this brilliant and lacerating revival of Sam Shepard's signature play, True West (1980), intact from the Glasgow Citizens, where it was seen at the end of last year. Two brothers, one a Hollywood screenwriter, the other a wild drunken hobo wandering the Mojave desert, meet after five years in their mother's suburban Californian home, exchange rival fantasies and ancient grudges, smash the place up, descending into feral chaos and violent hostility. The more I see the play - and that's a lot, since I first saw Antony Sher and Bob Hoskins at the National and John Malkovich and Gary Sinise off-Broadway 30 years ago - the more I suspect that Austin the writer and Lee the last gasp of the old Western cowboy are complementary facets of the same person, that person being Shepard himself. This has led actors in the past to alternate the roles - Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko at the Donmar, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly on Broadway, Nigel Harman and John Light in Sheffield last year - but although there's a strong element of role reversal in Philip Breen's production, there's no way these two actors could do the same. Irish screen star Eugene O'Hare is a slight, meticulous Austin, fingering his typewriter as if it were a piano, gradually sucked into the horrifying realisation that his world of imagination has been invaded and colonised. Similarly, Alex Ferns - best known as the villainous Trevor Morgan in EastEnders - becomes increasingly recognisable as the archetypal realist road and landscape writer dressed in wolf's clothing. It's a sign of the play's poetic complexity that at no stage do these developments seem schematic or false. The scenes are revealed in a shutter-like opening onto Max Jones' sleekly designed suburban interior, the azure skies of the desert beyond the chrome fittings and functional (soon to be dysfunctional) furniture. There's a taut, tense atmosphere as the brothers step warily around each other, the stakes changing with the arrival of Austin's agent, the glibly accommodating Saul Kimmer (Steven Elliot), in white trousers; Saul's immediately sold on Lee's outline of two no-hopers chasing each other's tails round the desert as a new "old" Western. He makes movies. Films are for the French. The boys' Mom (Barbara Rafferty) returns from Alaska in the last scene ("Did you see any igloos?") and, in the background, is their unseen father, a hopeless alcoholic (like Shepard's) and the great story of him losing his teeth in a chop suey take-out meal on the Mexican highway. The climax, with an array of stolen toasters and much wielding of golf clubs (alas, poor typewriter) is shocking, visceral, metaphoric. The stage-management's clean-up and pre-set job must be the biggest nightmare of all. The Stage **** by Mark Shenton The American dream unravels dramatically in Sam Shepard’s combustible masterpiece, revived in a constantly alert, eventually scorching production that was first seen at Glasgow Citizens’ last year and now transfers to London. Enclosed in a narrow letterbox of a set of the kitchen and conservatory of a Californian home, with shutters that close down between scenes, a fierce family drama plays out between two long-estranged brothers, Lee - a drifter and petty thief - and Austin, a Hollywood screenwriter, who are reunited after a five year absence in their mother’s home. Director Phillip Breen emphasises Pinteresque pauses and notes of sheer menace as these siblings face each other off in a battle for possession and control. The visit of Steven Elliott’s Saul, a film producer, creates a power shift between them as Lee’s pitch of a film idea is accepted over the script that Austin has been developing. When the play erupts into real violence in the second act, the production takes flight to an even darker, more frightening place. The dialogue bristles with fury; even if the voice of Alex Ferns’s Lee gets weirdly high-pitched as he rages, he is genuinely scary. Barbara Rafferty is both superb and moving as their mother returns from her holiday in Alaska to survey the wreckage that her home has become. Although the production may occasionally threaten to go over the top, it’s a rollercoaster of a dramatic ride, and makes for a bracing night.
Lyn Gardner's Theatre Blog