It’s been a very good year at the Sydney Theatre Company, at least for patrons. And it’s not over yet.
Sam Shepard’s True West, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a production I’ve been greatly anticipating and one which hasn’t let me down. Shepard exploits his fascination and obsession with the ‘wild west’, something of a by-product of his upbringing I gather, to explore the farthest corners of the myths of manhood and maturity. At the same time, he kills off the benevolent but fragile fairy that makes dreams and wishes come true. Hoffman has exercised his penchant (as I read it) for explosive character development, in no uncertain terms, and has made bold, inspired casting decisions, not least of course in recruiting Wayne Blair (is there anything this man can’t do exceptionally?). Hallelujah! At last! An Aboriginal actor cast in something other than an Aboriginal role. Arguably, Deb Mailman was there first and, unbelievably, on television, but I can’t think of any other precursive examples. Of equal merit, in situ, is Brendan Cowell.
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Richard Roberts’ set is very faithful, I glean, to the way in which it was originally conceived, but Hoffman’s conservatism in, presumably, insisting on it, begins and ends there. Roberts observance has been meticulous: even the plants look homegrown. The beauty of it is the kitchen and adjoining alcove of a southern Californian suburban home aren’t very far removed, if at all, from the homes so many of us grew up in, so there’s an immediate connect.
Paul Jackson’s lighting design is influential in setting-up notions of seething, menace, shadows, secrets, repression and the dark underbelly of the drama, which never is so solemn as to divorce itself from the comedic, as if to observe its own ridiculousness and ours, in familial context.
Alice Babidge’s contribution, vis a vis costume, has been valuable too, in reflecting and, indeed, helping establish the personalities of the players. Her getups for Alan Dukes, as the diminutive but devastatingly powerful Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer, are especially lip-curling and, like Roberts, her attention to detail hasn’t gone unnoticed: the period luggage Heather Mitchell, as Mom, returns from Alaska with is red(olent).
Max Lyandvert’s composition and sound design is characteristically no-holds-barred and brilliant: he has collaborated with Jackson to innovatively effect scene-shifts, with heavily metallic screaming guitar and driving drums.
By no means least is Charmian Gradwell’s vocal and textual coaching, which has resulted in flawless executions of accents, which are never overdone, even if there does seem to be disparity of locality between the brothers: Lee(Blair)’s doesn’t match Austin(Cowell)’s; but then, Austin did go to college.
Stage management also requires demanding precision, in this case: Tanya Leach and Rebecca Poulter fill the bill confidently, with nary a crushed beer-can or toaster out of place.
In Hoffman’s hands, Shepard’s status as one of America’s greatest living playwrights is cemented. The play may have turned 30, but it looks as fresh and vibrant, and tastes as pungent and powerful, as a just-picked chili.
Lee, the raffish drifter and professional burglar, lurks in semi-darkness, sitting on the sink, drinking beer, while his younger brother, Austin, a screenwriter, types by candlelight. It quickly becomes clear Austin is intimidated by Lee, who knows how to get inside people and vigorously scratch their innards. While Lee identifies and empathises with their drunken, destitute father, relegated to the fringes of society and that vast, physical metaphor for such, the desert, Austin is resolutely dismissive and discompassionate.
Or apparently so. Lee has come to resent his younger brother’s relative, outwardly visible success and has come to think his Ivy League sibling assumes he’s the smarter one. The fiercely competitive struggle culminates in Lee insinuating himself into a meeting between Austin and producer Kimmer. Lee makes an offer of golf apparently too good, or difficult, for Kimmer to refuse and, as the result of a wager on the game, supplants Austin’s project with his own. Tables are turned, symbolically and actually. Typewriters are smashed. Clubs bent. Everything gets horribly out-of-shape.
The reversal is pushed to the town limits: Austin is now the drunken one, out stealing toasters, while Lee clamours to devise his screenplay. Now it’s Austin that’s envious, correspondingly clamouring for the apparent, grass-is-greener adventure and freedom of Lee’s homeless lifestyle. He resolves to walk away from career, home, hearth, wife and kids to commune with cacti, as his older brother has done for so long.
Here are two boys pretending to be men, by turns stripped of the artifice of ego and status, revealing boys will be boys and are never really men. Manhood, and maturity, like the romance of the lonely, empty desert is a myth. The cactus is more a prickle repository than thirst-quencher. Dreams don’t come true, but are merely necessary figments, for psychic survival, of our fertile imaginations, desperately trying to water the desert of existence.
Mitchell and Dukes are good, but every much in the background. Blair and Cowell give, surely, the performances of their acting careers, to date: if they’ve done, or do, better yet, I will kneel in prayer, for their input and output here is worthy of deification. Blair is malevolent, worldly and loving in such balance as to completely define his character: his performance may well become a template for the role. I faithfully promise myself to never stoop to the critical cliche ‘triumphant!’, but it’s extremely hard to resist here. Cowell’s performance is brotherly in the sense also of being consummately complementary: yin to Blair’s yang, and vice-versa.
And, of course, much of the credit for the riveting action must fall at the feet of Hoffman, to say nothing of Shepard’s underlying subtlety, ingeniously masked by rampantly violent dramatic devices. As the theatrical year draws rapidly to a close, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s concentrated focus on American plays has been vindicated absolutely: True West capitalises on the sheer transcendence of August:Osage County and close-running Our Town. On the pretext of True West alone, even the faltering Long Day’s Journey Into Night can be forgiven.
True West is heavily invested with passion, skill, originality, vision, determination and steely sharpness.
Curtain Call rating: A+
The details: True West plays the Wharf 1 theatre until December 18. Tickets on the STC website.