“Greek tragedy set in the Mid-West” is how the director Lindsay Posner describes Sam Shepard’s powerful, intense short play Fool for Love (1983) which arrives at the Apollo like a disturbing message in a bottle from a distant shore.
Shepard has always seemed less commercial than his contemporary David Mamet, and Fool for Love is the only play of his to be seen in the West End - over 20 years ago, a National Theatre production starring the late Ian Charleson and Julie Walters transferred for a sold-out season. Posner’s revival is immeasurably superior to that version. In the casting of two non-English actors – the Los Angeles film star and rock singer Juliette Lewis, and the New Zealander Martin Henderson – as the half-siblings, “cousins” and incestuous lovers May and Eddie, he rescues Shepard from the English coyness that makes him merely exotic.
Eddie, a rodeo rider and stuntman, has driven thousands of miles to find May in a bleak motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert. She’s working as a short-order cook and is waiting for her new boyfriend, Martin (Joe Duttine), a garden maintenance worker in a suit, to take her to the movies. Instead, Eddie insists on creating their own movie in the motel, which is eerily lit by stuttering neon lights, and whose sound is amplified in the heavy echo of the slammed doors. In addition, an Old Man (Larry Lamb) sits nursing a bottle of hooch in a rocking chair at the side of the stage, demanding that Eddie gives the “male” side of the family story.
Fantasy and reality overlap with each other to create a sense of anxiety and foreboding, fears fulfilled by a climactic conflagration. At one point Eddie starts lassoing the bed posts and cleaning a rifle. May strips down to her flowery underwear and pours her limbs into a slinky red dress, hips jutting in provocative defiance of Eddie’s vicious assault on her memories.
You would never know that this was Juliette Lewis’ stage debut. She is absolutely superb in the role, combining washed-up misery and a casual air of sexuality with a natural unselfconsciousness and total relaxation. Martin Henderson, bearded and clad in grimy denims, looks uncannily like a younger version of the handsome playwright, himself an outdoorsman and horse-rider with a tortured relationship to his own family history. Both performances lack any sense of calculation and fully inhabit their own savagely choreographed scenario of heightened doom.
There’s comedy, too, when Martin tries to escape the claustrophobia by hurling himself at the window, but we are slowly gripped in the tragedy of what happened to the Old Man’s wife when the truth emerged, and moments of savage intimacy between Eddie and May carry an overwhelming carnal conviction. Shepard took his epigraph for the play from Archbishop Anthony Bloom: “The proper response to love is to accept it. There is nothing to do.”
- Michael Coveney