Matthew Dunster’s production of True West, the first major London revival of Sam Shepard’s work since his death last July, 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
This comes through in the performances of Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington and singer-songwriter-actor Johnny Flynn. They’re both giving the finest stage performances of their careers to date, but you get the sense that they’re both having enormous fun too.
Shepard’s play is set in Southern California in the early 1980s, not far from LA. Harington plays Austin, an Ivy League-educated screenwriter house-sitting for his mother, who spends most of his time slaving over a typewriter. Flynn plays Lee, his wayward, wildcard older brother, who shows up with a murky past, a dangerous glint in his eye, and several axes to grind.
Flynn is incredibly well cast in a role not a million miles away from the one he played in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen. In the first half, as Harington tip-taps away at a desk with increasing exasperation, Flynn sidles and sways around the house, wheedling and needling his brother with a pitch-perfect American accent. His face contorts with micro-expressions, each line reading teetering exquisitely between mockery and menace. The scene in which he bombards a Hollywood big shot with golfing chat is deliciously funny.
The first half belongs to Flynn, but the second half is Harington’s. After Lee turns the table on Austin, snatching his screenwriting contract from under his nose, the two descend into an extremely entertaining drunken frenzy of vitriol and violence. Harington lets loose with some bone-dry banter: watching him stumble around, making slice after slice of toast, while Flynn smashes up the stage with a golf-club, is one of the highlights of Dunster’s production.
The two hour staging is swift, never lingering. Jon Bausor’s set – a disorientating, skew-whiff sitting room – is furnished with delicate period details, and has an eye-opening, wall-removing coup up its sleeve towards the closing moments. Ian Dickinson’s sound design fills the air with chirping crickets: you can almost feel the heat, almost smell the sweat.
Shepard’s plays don’t always make sense. They so often trade in mood and emotion, rather than rhyme or reason. True West teases its audience with little tastes of meaning – flirtations with ideas of fraternity and of freedom, but its ultimately an enigmatic play. Dunster plays on that, but he also elucidates the comedy in Shepard’s bruising story of brotherly love.