Theatre review: True West at Tricycle Theatre

PUBLISHED: 06:06 24 September 2014

'True West' production photos

'True West' production photos

Pete Le May 2013

“What kinda people kill each other most? Family people.”

Buttoned-up screenwriter Austin (Eugene O’Hare), housesitting for his mother, and estranged brother Lee (Alex Ferns), a petty thief belligerently mythologising his drifter existence, embody the dangerous intensity of blood bond from their first appearance, frozen in tableau in a too-bright Californian home and framed exquisitely by Max Jones’ arresting widescreen shutters.

Phillip Breen’s revival of Sam Shepard’s 1980 masterpiece makes exceptional use of such cinematic visuals, underscoring the tension between the cultural ideal of the authentic West, represented by Lee’s misty-eyed frontiersman tall tales, and Hollywood exploitation.

Austin embraces the American Dream’s commercialism as he strives for a lucrative development deal, but when producer Saul (marvellously unctuous Steven Elliot) is seduced by Lee’s more “real” story, he drops Austin’s project and suggests the brothers collaborate on a screenplay.

The resulting sibling rivalry culminates in a frenzied orgy of destruction, but Breen’s production is most effective in the disciplined build-up, savouring each charged statement and Pinteresque pause, rich with menace.

The central pair superbly evoke a seething hinterland, shared history an almost visible barrier between them. O’Hare’s neurotic unravels in memorable fashion, while Ferns’ bully is terrifyingly capricious, one moment wheedling, the next swapping rabid jocularity for calculated violence.

They envy and romanticise one another’s lives, slip into a peculiar role reversal, and emerge hopelessly disillusioned. Both seem doomed to inherit their father’s alcoholism as they numb the pain of thwarted ambition, a fact their mother (nuanced Barbara Rafferty) recognises in a moment of agonising pathos.

Breen also captures the pitch-black satire of Shepard’s piece, which encapsulates Picasso’s belief that every act of creation is first an act of destruction. Chaos is heralded by the increasingly cacophonous howl of coyotes – those prowling beasts luring domestic pets from civilisation to savagery. That divide has never seemed so fragile.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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