If anyone has ever felt the sharp tug of sibling rivalry, jealousy, resentment or, dare I say it, pure hatred in their lives then Sam Shepard’s 1980 play is liable to ring horribly true.
It starts with Hollywood scriptwriter Austin (Game of Thrones star Kit Harington) tapping merrily away on his typewriter during a house sit of Mom’s place, a comfortable suburban Californian condo, beautifully recreated in Jon Bausor’s designs. He has been working for months on his film script, a love story we learn, and a studio is about to bite. He has, he makes clear, invested everything in this.
But one minute Austin is lighting a candle to aid his work and soothe his synapses, the next his brother Lee (Johnny Flynn) is in the living room, wheedling, whining and threatening to muck things up. Under Matthew Dunster’s taut and intelligent direction Lee appears with a flick of a switch, suddenly, as if from nowhere, contributing to the slight hint in the text (that feels stronger in this production than any I have seen) that the arrival of Lee could all be imagined by Austin. Is he part of a dream – or more properly a nightmare And what dream is it? Two sides of American masculinity, each pursuing the different goals in the West, one in the movies one in the wild frontiers? It’s deliciously mysterious.
Because whether his presence is real or not, Lee becomes a sudden evocation of Austin’s other self, the world other alternative possibility. What he could have become if the fates had had their way, the college boy with the fancy job turning into the brutish burglar and liar the wayward thief who has spent the last few months hanging out in the Mojave desert.
It’s a notion which becomes less fanciful mid-way through when Shepard flips the fortunes around rather spectacularly: when movie producer Saul (Donal Sage Mackay) ditches Austin’s script and becomes mesmerised by the authenticity of Lee’s stories. Suddenly Austin is being asked to help his brother, becoming sucked into this life until the Iyv League success story longs to drink to oblivion and break out into the desert and leave everything behind. Just like his brother had done.
It’s an intense, beguiling and seductive watch and this production works thanks to the finely-calibrated performances of our two leading men.
I was particularly impressed by Harington’s turn as the put-upon sibling. As Flynn’s Lee towers over him, lifting the cap off beer after beer with a growing menace, Harington beautifully conveys Austin’s panic about losing everything and the guilt he feels about his wayward brother’s life story.
Flynn is also impressive, bringing an unexpectedly physical presence to his air of deep resentment towards his brother, a man to whom he is connected only by the memory of a drunken, absent father. There is pain there too.
But this is a version notable for its dreamlike nature, which persists into the troubling final scene when Mom returns. After their final tussle, the back wall of the house rises suddenly and we stare out at the hot desert beyond the house to the promise of freedom…or collapse. It’s never quite clear what is happening, which is as it should be. What lingers, though, feels authentic: the age-old tussle of siblings, a battle that started with Cain and Abel and has not stopped since.
True West is at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand until February 16 2019. Box Office: 0330 333 4814