Flight Path Theatre, February 4
Had Sam Shepard been a boxer, he may well have fvoured removing the gloves. His writing has a rawness seldom matched in drama, so words become weapons that open wounds old and new, while his characters are bruised and scarred by each other and by the bleak business of being alive.
In Shepard’s True West (1980), Austin’s sheltered life as a screenwriter is trashed by the arrival of his older brother, Lee, a professional thief, dedicated drinker and dog-fight enthusiast. The glint of metal from his well-worn steel-capped boots in Georgina Symes’ production proclaims his menace, and Austin Hayden plays Lee with the relentlessness of a battering ram, punching and punching until he breaks through Austin’s Ivy League veneer, and starts to reshape his brother’s world in his own image.
Ryan Brown’s Austin is a physical non-entity by comparison, having always got by on brains alone. He lets Lee rampage into his life because the only way to stop him would be physically, a non-option until Lee starts messing up Austin’s career. Saul (Tom Harwood) is a producer with whom Austin is closing a contract – at least until Lee hits on Saul with an idea for a modern-day western. Saul’s decision to drop Austin’s movie in favour of Lee’s happens offstage in a slightly improbable golf game. It might be that Lee’s western is stronger than Austin’s love story, or it might be that Saul’s scared. He merely explains to Austin that “nobody’s interesting in love these days”.
Jo Briant plays the boys’ mother, who’s lent Austin her house while she holidays in Alaska. She returns early – to a scene like a saloon mid-brawl, which she observes with the blurred detachment of one convinced that Picasso is currently visiting their town.
Symes, in her directorial debut, has the production on the cusp of fully realising Shepard’s greatness. It’s certainly amply physical, the brothers’ fights leaving you worried for both the set’s integrity and the actors’ wellbeing. But although Hayden’s ferocious performance won’t be quickly forgotten, Symes lets him off the leash too soon, so the play’s stakes struggle to rise in the way Shepard intended. It certainly keeps you engaged, yet it can’t quite maintain the opening’s vice-like grip, because that has an intensity that can’t be topped.