True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box)
August 17 – 28
Often I judge a show’s engagement by how long it is into its duration before I am tempted to check the time. By this criteria (and in fact by any gauge), “True West” is brilliant, so searing as to only warrant a watch look in hope that it might not be over quite so soon.
It begins with Ivy-league educated Austin (Julian Curtis), a respectable professional working as a Hollywood screenwriter on a movie project and minding his mother’s house in California during her trip to Alaska. His intentions are soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his anti-social brother, Lee (Thomas Larkin), a petty-thief fresh from three months living the desert. As the contrasting civilised and savage men, the two represent opposite sides of the American Dream, but share in desperation to escape the story of their unseen, alcoholic father.
Seedy drifter Lee burgles houses for a living, living rough out of necessity. Grubby in attire, he either cannot interpret or is ambivalent towards social cues and expectations, showing his short temper through eruptions of violence that shock the audience on more than one occasion. When he mocks the material comfort of neat houses and manicured lawns, however, it is clear that this normality is what he desires. In fact, the brothers each crave the other’s life, however, when it seems like this may be happening as Lee seals a deal to sell a cliché-clad movie premise of his own to Producer Saul (Charles Allen), the reality is different from the desire. And when the tables are turned (literally) the result is the controlled chaos of a mesmerisingly messy, physical show as the good boy and outlaw face off in the story of whose story it’s going to be.
Playwright Sam Shepherd is known for his creation of complex and real characters and this is certainly seen in this production. You can feel the tension between the two leads from the strained interaction of the introductory minutes as the disparity of the opportunities afford to them growing up becomes clear. The on-stage exploration of the consequential emotions makes for a searing study that is both gritty and often very funny, moving smoothly from humour to pathos in an instance. The writing is superb, and, in Director Marcel Dorney’s hands its dialogue is allowed to tumble naturally over itself in contribution to its vigorous pace, while still maintaining the strain of the brothers’ estranged relationship. The juxtaposition is simply spellbinding to watch.
This is a play of epic roles and Curtis and Larkin exploit them for all that they are worth. Larkin is excellent as he inhabits the arrogance of the deliberately-guarded but brutal Lee, from his slouched-shouldered stance to his aggressive walk and intimidating demeanour. His performance is layered beyond just the character’s physicality too, enabling the audience hint at a suspected secret respect for his comparatively successful brother. Particularly in Act One his presence is a force that can only be appreciated through experience in person, shrinking the audience to eye-contact avoidance as he speaks.
While much of Act One sees Austin seething silently in reaction to his brother’s emerging opportunist success, his Act Two drunkenness is riotously funny, especially when he returns with the spoils of Lee’s dare that he could not steal as successfully as him. There are many possibilities for physical humour within this section of the show and Curtis doesn’t miss any of them. Solid in support is Allen as lounge-suited smick Hollywood producer Saul and Christen O’Leary as the boys’ out of touch mother, returning home to their hostilities in the final scene.
There is nothing to fault in this production. Even the music accompanying scene transitions is in keeping with the Western motif. Designer Genevieve Ganner’s staging sets the scene of a naturalistic but dated living room setting, complete with ‘70s laminex, which is basked in an overall, warm lighting glow. Lighting (c/o designer Jason Glenwright) also creates intimacy in enveloping a rare tender sibling interaction as Austin shares the story of how their father lost his false teeth in a Mexican bar.
“True West” is an absolutely engaging exploration of life and family. But there is much more to its themes that its sibling narrative. And as the brothers smash about, it is the destruction of their dreams that resonates more beautifully than their mess onstage. At once funny and deeply unsettling, it is an experience sure to stay with audiences long after leaving in knowledge that they have witnessed what is sure to be one of the best works to hit the Brisbane stage this year.