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. At last — an Aboriginal actor cast in something other than an Aboriginal role. Of equal merit, in situ, is Brendan Cowell.

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 (Blair), the raffish drifter and professional burglar, lurks in semi-darkness, sitting on the sink, drinking beer, while his younger brother, Austin (Cowell), a screenwriter, types by candlelight. 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. 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.

Blair and Cowell give, surely, the performances of their acting careers, to date. 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. 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.

True West is heavily invested with passion, skill, originality, vision, determination and steely sharpness.

The details: True West plays the Wharf 1 theatre until December 18. Tickets on the STC website.

Peter Fray

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