True West

It’s easy to see why 1980’s True West is Sam Shepard’s most consistently revived play. Since its premiere, it has stood as an exemplar of Shepard’s concerns as a playwright: a stirring portrait of masculinity in crisis, truth’s fallibility and the inner conflicts that exists within all of us.

It’s heady stuff but presented with an absurdist playfulness also typical of Shepard’s writing. True West makes use of this playfulness to glorious effect. It is a shame, then, to note its absence in this disappointing revival from Human Sacrifice Theatre (HST).

Ultimately True West is a show about inner conflict – our ‘double nature’, Shepard told the New York Times over forty years ago. Two brothers reunite after five years apart in their mother’s home in Southern California: Austin (Justin Hosking) is an Ivy-League graduate screenwriter, Lee (Mark Diaco) a listless vagabond prone to sudden bouts of violence.

Over the course of the play these warring siblings switch roles – Austin becomes the rebellious con artist, Lee the neurotic artist prone to writer’s block. A Cain and Abel story begins to look more like Jekyll and Hyde: a portrait of conflicting inner selves that Shepard clearly has fun theatricalising.

Austin steals tens of toasters to signal his transformation; Lee wraps himself up in the ink ribbons of a typewriter. A distant father is evoked in an anecdote about dentures left in takeaway chop suey and a mother (played by Fiona Steward with hilarious deadpan delivery) returns home from Alaska to a kitchen littered with trash and simply leaves to find a motel.

It is a show that exists on a knife’s edge between seemingly warring styles and emotions – at once suspenseful and playful; naturalistic and absurdist; comedic and high conflict; a portrait of masculine bravado and earnest vulnerability.

No wonder it’s attracted legendary actors, directors and designers to take a stab at walking its theatrical tightrope – Tommy Lee Jones, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke to name a few.

Where this production at fortyfivedownstairs falls flat is in failing to navigate or capitalise on the show’s innate contradictions. Uneven performances and unimaginative design make for a frustratingly stale production that mutes Shepard’s live-wire text and the relationship dynamic at its heart.

As Austin, Hosking is great – skittish, apologetic and frustratingly passive. His meek nervousness adds to the anticipation that drives the show’s first half, though his performance runs the risk of appearing one-note.

With a domineering frame and well-executed accent, Diaco looks and sounds the part but seems unsure of how to use his physicality to portray Lee’s live-wire charisma and threatening magnetism. When he lashes out violently against his brother, there are no real stakes to the action, making Austin’s dramatic reaction appear unhelpfully melodramatic.

Relatedly, many of the show’s comedic beats are ignored or hurried over by both performers. Too much stake is placed on the show’s dramatic beats, eliminating the humour that distinguishes Shepard’s writing, and that audiences need to see to help vary its central conflict.

What is ultimately missing from the pair’s relationship is that sense of near-primal connection and shared history that exists between brothers. Austin recoils at Lee lunging at him almost immediately, but the threat of violence among brothers (and from a character as naturally explosive as Austin) is not threatening in the same way as a punch from a stranger.

Austin is immediately scared of Lee, leaving little room for their relationship dynamic to go. It’s too clear cut; Austin cedes his power too quickly. Act One consequently lumbers forward revisiting similar power plays between the pair without evoking the complex push-and-pull that might diversify it as a dynamic between siblings.

When we come to a second act that builds to a scene of earnest comradery based around a childhood memory shared between them, the moment is sapped of emotion. What should have appeared as an example of tense intimacy between two brothers is lost, appearing more like a simple monologue that showcases Hosking’s skills as an actor. He delivers it well but he could just as well have been alone.

Lighting Design signals scene transitions in a curious fashion, with lights dramatically surging before every blackout. It’s an intriguing choice but it needs more finesse to land. At times the actors were stuck frozen in full light, or left waiting in an odd silence for the lights to surge first before the blackout.

The set is simple: a white-washed kitchen and dining room set that lacks any specificity or quality to distinguish it. It also, most noticeably, lacks much depth, flattening the stage and keeping the actors locked into a limited space front of stage.

This is part of the reason the set’s eventual destruction in Act Two appeared anticlimactic. Plastic plants darken and Cheeto packets litter the floor but the set – and the ways in which our characters navigate it – remain frustratingly unchanged.

Such sterility is not helped by the washed out pastels that make up the kitchen’s colour scheme. And the choice to have an intermission – a struggle for many past productions of the play – does not help the show’s difficulty in building the tension that leads to this destruction.

The portrait of masculinity to be found in True West is one of complex contradictions – of manhood at war with itself. It remains as prescient an idea as it was forty years ago. While there are certainly warring contradictions in this production from HST, they are clearly unintentional – each a lost battle that begets a lost war.

True West
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 21 April 2023
Season continues to 7 May 2023
Information and Bookings:

Image: Mark Diaco as Lee and Justin Hosking as Austin in True West – photo by Greg Elms

Review: Guy Webster