In one sense, this review can only be provisional. Just like Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1994, Nigel Harman and John Light are alternating the parts of the brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West, so that the full run becomes an examination of their characters and relationship. Given that they are two brothers who are polar opposites on the surface, this opens up an exploration of the hidden common ground.
True West is a play of contrasts and contradictions. Is it a searingly realistic examination of the violent consequences of sibling rivalry or a hysterically free-wheeling riff on several kinds of crazy? It’s both, of course, though the realism only extends to the forms, manners and tensions of contemporary life, not to details of plotting or motivation.
The brothers are Austin, a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, and Lee, a loser and small time thief. Lee has unexpectedly appeared at their mother’s house where Austin is working on a screenplay while his mother holidays in Alaska. At first Lee merely disturbs Austin’s working practices and offers an always-present menace. Later things spin out of control after Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer visits Austin to seal the deal. Lee hijacks the operation and tricks Saul into favouring his own half-baked Western storyline (basically, two guys chasing each other across Texas) over Austin’s conventional romance. Roles shift, drink flows and violence is never far below the surface.
Director Paul Miller has generally opted for exploiting the comic potential of the play. John Light’s Lee is a splendidly brooding presence from the start, mouthing monosyllables in menacing stillness broken by bursts of violent action, but overall there is little sign of the visceral impact I remember from Matthew Warchus’ Leeds production. Hayden Griffin’s designs are stylishly in keeping with all we know of Mom’s tastes, but it’s all so expansive – where’s the claustrophobia? John Schwab has modest impact as Saul, as does Nigel Harman as the conventional Ivy Leaguer Austin – until rejection and whisky transform the character and the performance takes off, though still to mainly humorous effect. Abigail McKern’s brief appearance as Mom, radiating conventional standards and exhorting her boys to fight outside if they have to fight, is nicely judged and the ending is frighteningly ambiguous, but overall I was entertained rather than swept along by the raw power and maverick excesses of the script.
True West is worth another visit. Light and Harman work skilfully and generously as a team and it’s impossible to judge their achievement without seeing the roles in reverse. Sam Shepard, after all, is an actor as well as playwright, and the play has starred America’s finest (try Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Malkovich, James Belushi and Randy Quaid for starters), so, whatever else it is, it’s a superb showcase for virtuoso acting. At first sight that’s not in place at Sheffield, but who knows in the brother-swapping weeks to come?