It might be panto season, but there’s nothing remotely festive about this. The late Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West – with its oblique story of two estranged brothers savagely squabbling and scrapping as they house-sit for their mother in southern California – isn’t exactly classic Christmas fare.
Matthew Dunster’s production is at the Vaudeville Theatre until late February. It’s the first major London revival of a Shepard play since his death in July 2017, and it’s got serious star power behind it in the familiar forms of Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn.
Harington, globally famous thanks to TV series Game Of Thrones and Gunpowder, is taking on his first stage role since starring in Jamie Lloyd’s ill-fated Doctor Faustus two years ago. The multi-talented Flynn has albums, films, TV series and hit shows under his belt – his last London performance was in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen back in 2015.
But will these two stars of stage and screen – and song in Flynn’s case – shine a light on this angsty American play? Will Dunster find the truth in True West? Does this production do good by the deceased Shepard?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
True West was something of a flop when made its New York debut in 1980, but it has since established itself as Shepard’s most famous play – an off-beat, impenetrable elegy about the identity of the American West written in Shepard’s signature cryptic style. But does it still disturb today?
One critic can’t see what all the fuss is about. “Little of the plot is believable,” complains Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★), who labels it a “suffocating, unsatisfying play”.
Everyone else, though, can recognise a classic when they see one. “Shepard’s play is still a knock-out, nearly 40 years on from its San Francisco premiere,” says Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★), while Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★) calls it his “most accessible” play and Ben Dowell (Radio Times, ★★★★) reckons it’s “deliciously mysterious”.
True West is “a wonderfully warped and blackly farcical study of sibling rivalry, of the self-division within Shepard himself, and of two sides of the national psyche pitted against each other,” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★), while Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) fancies it as “a poetic paean to the vanishing American West and a classic study of sibling rivalry that offers two cracking main roles”.
“There’s a lot happening here with warring (and wounded) masculinities,” adds Rosemary Waugh (Time Out, ★★★). “And then there’s the story-telling aspect. Shepard’s fighting brothers have a mythical or biblical edge, a modern-day Romulus or Remus.”
It’s also very funny, according to, well, me (The Stage, ★★★★). True West, I wrote: “demonstrates that not only was the late playwright a superb chronicler of the histories and hypocrisies of the Wild West, but that he also had a wickedly sharp sense of humour”.
Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) concurs, but also points out that, for all its machismo, “True West is a remarkably delicate flower. Set it down in the wrong place, fail to moisten it with sufficient droplets of subtle directorial care, and a dark comedy of wild pungency can wilt into something oddly odourless.”
As far as the critics are concerned then, there’s nothing wrong with Shepard’s play – it’s as powerful in 2018 as it was four decades ago and its inspection of America just as resonant. But what do the critics think of Johnny Flynn and Kit Harington as Lee and Austin, Shepard’s pair of battling brothers?
It’s fair to say opinion is divided. On one side there’s me writing that “they’re both giving the finest stage performances of their careers to date” and on the other there’s Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★), who calls the show “one of the worst acted and least convincing productions of any Shepard play that I have ever seen”.
Flynn gets mixed responses. For Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), Flynn’s performance as Lee captures “a strong sense of his feral charisma”, while for Shenton his “free-form, rock ‘n’ roll ranginess gives the play its dangerous, compelling edge”.
“Flynn only has to curl his lip an eighth of an inch to give us an idea of Lee’s malevolence,” praises Letts.
But for Billington, Flynn “struggles to convey the idea of Lee’s secret longings for stability and quietude” and for Treneman he “is on permanent bellow setting and, after a while, you get as tired of the overacting as Austin must be”.
The critics are kinder to Kit. Dowell was “particularly impressed” by how Harington “beautifully conveys Austin’s panic about losing everything and the guilt he feels about his wayward brother’s life story”, while Shenton admires his “wary, coiled intensity” and Cavendish claims he “proves his mettle in this latest stage outing”.
“Harington is especially convincing in the later stages as Austin unleashes his inner fury,” writes Billington, while Taylor describes how “Harington degenerates hilariously and dangerously, hellbent on joining his brother in the desert – a life for which he is manifestly unsuited – and struggling to strangle him with a whipcord”.
So are they any good together? The reviewers really can’t make up their minds. For Waugh, “the celeb pairing of Haringon and Flynn never fizzes enough with the threat of violence” and for Crompton “they have no depth or complexity”.
For Cavendish, though, “they’re almost a dream team” and for Dowell the production is “an intense, beguiling and seductive watch” thanks to Flynn and Harington’s “finely-calibrated performances”.
He’s got scores of successful shows and an Olivier nomination behind him, but Matthew Dunster has had a tough time of late – his recent production of Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter received mixed reviews. How well does he handle the slippery Shepard?
Crompton think he’s got a stinker on his hands. “Dunster chooses to play it both as farce and fantasy, introducing elements of trance into its realistic setting,” she admonishes. “Everything is simultaneously over-emphasised and underwhelming. It is a dreadful waste of an opportunity to celebrate Shepard – and of everyone’s time.”
“Most of the tension comes from prolonged shouting or loud blasts of twanging, drum-thumping music during scene changes,” agrees Waugh. “But even as they’re trashing the room, smashing objects and downing whiskey, the whole thing has the feel of an undergrad party where everyone’s pretending to ‘GO KERRRRAAAZZZY!!!’ in the most controlled way possible.”
Meanwhile, some think Dunster has definitely delivered the goods. He’s crafted a “nicely conceived, sharply executed vision of the play” according to Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★), while for Taylor, he’s supplied “an engaging dose of its visceral elation”.
Everyone else falls somewhere in between. Dunster’s production is “good, but not as excellent as it could be” for Treneman. It’s got “intoxicating potency” but is hamstrung by “remedial deficiencies” for Cavendish and “feels a little underpowered to begin with” but “eventually gathers heat” for Shenton.
With review ratings ranging from one star (Sarah Crompton for WhatsOnStage) to four (me for The Stage, Henry Hitchings for the Evening Standard, and others), it’s fair to say that Matthew Dunster’s revival has divided the critics.
Crompton reckons it’s an insult to the late playwright’s memory that Harington and Flynn supply little more than sketches and that Dunster’s direction pitches the play all wrong. Most other critics are kinder: Harington and Flynn are fine – superb, for some – and Dunster has delivered an adequately atmospheric interpretation, if not an overwhelmingly intense one.
The only thing almost everyone agrees on is that True West is a stone-cold classic, and Shepard’s unique voice will be sorely missed.