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True West

by Sam Shepard

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
29 October 16 November
2013

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Cast List

Austin Eugene O'Hare
Lee
Alex Ferns
Saul Kimmer
Steven Elliot
Mom
Barbara Rafferty 

Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Lighting Design
er
Tina McHugh
Composer and Sound Designer
Andrea J Cox
  
  


   
Reviews

UK Theatre Award nomination for 'Best Design'

The Guardian

by Mark Fisher 
 
Phillip Breen brings a Pinteresque air of brooding menace to Sam Shepard's uncomfortably black comedy of sibling rivalry
 
The brightest thing on stage is Austin's sky-blue shirt. Glowing brightly beneath Tina McHugh's exquisite lighting, it looks like an accusation: however he behaves, this man is a figure of Ivy League privilege. Stalked by his dissolute brother Lee, he is buttoned up and prim, a bourgeois prig.
 
'Sam Shepard is contemporary American drama,' said the critic Martin Esslin; he might just as easily have said True West is contemporary America. In this uncomfortably black comedy, the playwright sets two sides of the national psyche against each other. Austin is the cerebral screenwriter chasing the American dream on its own winner-takes-all terms. His estranged brother Lee is the lawless, self-reliant frontiersman, as at home in the Mojave desert as a coyote.
 
Their battle, as they meet for the first time in five years in their mother's west-coast home, stands for the irresolvable conflict between head and heart, cultivation and instinct, sophisticate and savage. When, counter to expectations, Lee sells a screenplay and Austin hits the bottle, we realise neither man is as comfortable in his skin as he likes to pretend.
 
With its stillness and soft evening hues, Max Jones's wide oblong set has the languid feel of an Edward Hopper painting, but it is one infused with brittle tension. Director Phillip Breen brings all the intimidating pauses and brooding menace of a Pinter play, never allowing Alex Ferns's Lee to break eye contact nor Eugene O'Hare's Austin to speak too soon.
 
It makes for an electrifying performance, controlled and precise, yet ever threatening to tip into anarchy. Ferns, especially, commandeers a dangerous rock'n'roll energy, one eventually matched by an explosion of pent-up rage as O'Hare tries to tap into Austin's clumsy primal instincts. We laugh, but our laughter is chilling.
 
 
The Independent

by Anna Burnside
 
Although it is a decade since he left EastEnders, it is still something of a shock to encounter Glaswegian baddy Trevor in a suburban American kitchen wearing a dead man's coat, speaking Sam Shepard's lines in a high, twangling drawl. After a quick readjust, however, it's clear that Alex Ferns was born to be Lee, the TV-stealing drifter who pitches up at his mother's house to find his younger brother playing housekeeper and working on a screenplay.
 
In Ferns' hands, Lee becomes Jack Nicholson by way of Rab C Nesbitt. The years roll back and Lee and his brother Austin, skilfully underplayed by Eugene O'Hare, are kids again, searching for snakes in the nearby foothills. (It is immediately clear who did the hunting and who was white with terror during these outings.)
 
As they circle around each other, Lee slugging beer and taunting his whitebread brother, Austin trying to be the grown-up then surrendering his car keys, we can see their back stories as clearly as if they were playing on the stolen telly.
 
Director Phillip Breen's masterpiece is to draw across horizontal curtains between scenes. This gives the audience a chance for a few deep breaths and allows the stage crew to perform feats that are even more impressive than the audience gets to see.
 
As the brother drink themselves insensible and attempt to prove that they can assume each other's roles, their mother's home, once spotless and lush with plants, becomes a beer can-littered gang hut. The plants wither and die. Austin, unused to Nesbitt-style benders, accidentally breaks the fridge door. Lee, enraged by his inability to find a pencil, empties the cupboards and pulls the phone from the wall.
 
And with the curtains closed, Andrea J Cox's soundscape takes on even more significance. Lee finds the chirping crickets and howling coyotes claustrophobic. The wild creatures echo the mounting tension in the kitchen and, by the time the curtain closes on lee foaming at the mouth and smashing his brother's typewriter with a five iron, the coyotes are at fever pitch.
 
Shepard's script is so funny and lightly drawn, and Ferns' and O'Hare's double act so cleverly constructed, that it's not until you are in the car park that it dawns: this is inter-generational family tragedy. The chill comes afterwards, like the brothers' hangovers.
 
  
The Times

Since its premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 1980, Sam Shepard’s True West has become almost a victim of its own success. The play, which charts the escalating rivalry between two brothers house-sitting their mother’s home in the Los Angeles hills, has been performed over the years by such luminaries as John Malkovich, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bruce Willis. Big names mean big box office, but they can also lead to a lessening of the play’s emotional impact as the action shifts farther and farther away from the audience.
 
What’s refreshing about Phillip Breen’s production for the Citz is how deeply it immerses us in the action, almost as though the proscenium had been taken down for the duration of the run. For at least two thirds of the running time the tension between Alex Ferns’ aggressive desert hobo Lee and fastidious screenwriter Austin (an outstanding performance from Eugene O’Hare) can be felt on the skin. This sense of intimacy is partly down to Max Jones’s set design, a soulless late-1970s kitchen whose weirdly-angled walls and low ceilings can barely contain the rampaging brothers, particularly in the second act when the gloves come off and the golf clubs fly. The use of shutters, which descend at the end of each scene, briefly framing the action in the style of a letterbox screen, is a powerful reminder that the brothers’ dreams of escape, whether into the Wild West or picket-fenced suburbia, are nothing more than Hollywood-spun fantasies.
 
For the most part Breen’s handling of Shepard’s signature mix of visceral emotion and surreal humour is spot-on. Only in the later scenes does he appear to lose his grip on the action as Ferns, now stripped to his bare buttocks and sloshing beer around with wild abandon, veers dangerously close to Trevor, the cartoon villain he played in EastEnders. The dark irony of Shepard’s vision finds its most eloquent expression in the quieter moments of this production, most notably in the famous speech about the boys’ father losing his false teeth in a carton containing the leftovers of a Chinese meal.
 
 
The Scotsman

by Joyce McMillan
 
In the middle of the 20th century, the great Arthur Miller set out to prove that mighty tragedies could be written about the lives of ordinary Americans. It’s much more difficult, though, to work out what is going on a generation later in the plays of Sam Shepard; with Shepard, the tragedy of broken American dreams seems to have shifted into a wild theatre of cruelty, fiercely ironic, sometimes surreal, and often exploding into passages of bitter comedy. It’s through this maelstrom of tragic feeling and grotesque laughter that Phillip Breen tries to navigate his new production of Shepard’s 1980 play True West for the Citizens Theatre; and if the journey hits a few sandbanks, it still remains a tremendously vivid and disturbing experience.
 
True West is the story of an encounter between two brothers in their thirties. Austin is a clean-cut and ambitious young screenwriter, who has left his wife and kids in Northern California for a week to house-sit his mother’s home near Los Angeles; his shambolic older brother Lee is a sharp-witted, hard-drinking down-and-out who bullies Austin into helpless compliance, effectively steals his career as a screenwriter, and then conspires with his increasingly distraught brother in wrecking their mother’s home.
 
As American stories go, in other words, this one has almost everything; the tension between wild pioneering spirit and Puritan conventionality, the failure of mature masculinity, the imagery of the encroaching desert as coyotes howl around the suburban house, and the powerful role of the film industry as a vehicle and focus for American dreams.
 
And this production often perfectly captures that atmosphere of a culture framing and filming itself, not least through Max Jones’s powerful set, which places the domestic scene between two giant vertical shutters that close sharply between scenes. As the story progresses, and the clash between the two brothers becomes ever more destructive, Breen’s production seems to lose its rhythm slightly. Even Alex Ferns’s terrific, compelling and threatening performance as Lee begins to look a shade repetitive, over a long final hour of shouting and drunk-acting; and many in the audience simply roar with laughter, as if the play were a loud Hollywood sitcom.
 
In the final scene, though, the sense of gravitas and dark poetry begins to return; and we are left with an unforgettable image of two men facing one another in a room that is no longer home, while the great unseen landscape of the west stretches beyond them as cliché and dream, utterly indifferent to their fate. 
 
 
The Herald

by Neil Cooper
 
The cricket chirrups and increasingly loud coyote howls that punctuate this all too rare revival of Sam Shepard's 1980 trawl through the dark heart of America may sound real in Phillip Breen's production. In the end, however, as Max Jones's cinemascope design makes clear, we all know it is as make-believe as a movie. 
 
The quest for authenticity is what drives Eugene O'Hare's bookish Austin, who, on the verge of a life-changing deal, has holed himself up in his mother's place, tapping out an old-time love story in suburban bliss. Austin's world is turned upside down when his deranged petty thief brother Lee turns up out of the blue from his desert hidey-hole.
 
Where Austin peddles implausible dreams on the page, Lee's manic, booze-soaked stories of a wilder world beyond convinces Steven Elliot's hustler producer Saul to take a chance on his pop-eyed take on blockbuster sensationalism over art. As the brothers' roles are reversed in increasingly manic fashion, the veneer of civilisation itself seems to collapse in on them as the domestic shell they're occupying is smashed to pieces.
 
Originally produced at a time when the excesses of the 1960s-sired generation of maverick film directors were about to be reined in and horse-traded for something more formulaic, Shepard's play is now a period piece from a pre-laptop, pre-YouTube age where even the most independent auteur was working for the man. With explicit nods to familial dysfunction via an absent father, Shepard's text is also shot through with the myth-making extremes of Greek tragedy.
 
It is a relentless and increasingly demented ride, with Alex Ferns driving the action as Lee with a ferocity which, when matched by Austin's toaster-stealing routine as Lee batters the typewriter into submission with a golf-club, looks like a wilfully absurdist parody. Even their Mom, played by Barbara Rafferty with resigned whey-faced acceptance, can't tell what is real anymore. 
 
As the two men square up to each other while the stage fades to black, the call of the wild beyond the fake four walls that bind them both may save them yet.
 
 
The Public Reviews

by Lauren Humphreys
 
In less capable hands this new production of Sam Shepard’s True West could easily have descended into cheap melodrama. It is testament to the quality of not only Shepard’s script but also the blistering abilities of the actors and artistic team at the Citizens Theatre that it proves to be a sure-fire smash. Using sibling rivalry as a metaphor to highlight the vicissitudes of the American Dream, it explores how, regardless of what we appear to have on the surface, there’s always something that someone else has that we crave more.
 
Younger brother Austin (Eugene O’Hare) is house-sitting in the sun-baked California home of his mother (Barbara Rafferty) whilst attempting to write a screenplay on which he believes the future of his career depends. Into this peaceful, creative idyll crashes older brother Lee (Alex Ferns), desert-dwelling drifter, drunk and petty thief. Whilst their relationship isn’t exactly Cain and Abel it certainly tests brotherly love to its limits. Each has something the other longs for: Lee craves the stability of home, family and a purpose, for Ivy League Austin it’s the freedom to escape the bounds of the daily grind and commitment to wife and kids and although never overtly stated, it is clear that each man is one half of the same whole. This duality, played out convincingly by the two leads, runs throughout the whole piece. When Lee manages to sell a movie pitch to the producer his brother has spent months courting, their already fragile relationship is tested to extremes.
 
This is an examination of a relationship at its uneasiest, it’s most combative, teetering on a knife-edge throughout. There’s a temptation to play this broad and the actors do push the boundaries due to the extremity of the emotions involved, but to their credit both Ferns and O’Hare manage to keep it well within the bounds of (an albeit heightened) reality. The superb central performances from both Ferns and O’Hare provide a glorious master-class in stage acting. As Lee, Alex Ferns has found a role that fits like a glove. In a bravura performance replete with crazed eyes, extreme drinking, a bit of fire-starting and general swaggering menace, he manages to imbue the role with enough subtle nuances to retain an utter believability in his characterisation and deftly exploits the black humour in Shepard’s writing. The most compelling thing about his portrayal though, is the feeling of unease he manages to maintain throughout, there’s a vagueness, a feeling of disquiet, that never quite allows us to get a firm handle on him. Eugene O’Hare as Austin provides the perfect foil to the mercurial Lee; his journey from tightly controlled, cowed, little brother to man on the brink is utterly convincing and the interaction between the pair utterly seamless. Mention too must be made of the power of the well-placed pause, of which there are many, and which each actor handles masterfully; heightening the vicious menace and sense of fear that underlies the whole piece. Mention must also be made of the laughter; belly-laugh-out-loud, laughter elicited throughout.
 
There are no tricks here, this is no radical re-invention of the work, instead a classic staging of this all-too relatable tale of family dynamics and the myth of the American Dream and it’s all the better for it. To its credit it resists the urge to wrap the whole thing up in a nice package for us and leaves the audience, as all good theatre should, wanting more. Explosive, exhilarating and electrifying, True West is true class.
 
 
Backstage Pass

by Lisa Davidson
 
With the soporific sound of crickets enveloping the theatre, Sam Shepard's compelling play True West brings some Californian sunshine and a glimpse of its dark heart to the frigid Glasgow winter. 
 
Alex Ferns is domineering and darkly compelling as society dropout Lee. Seemingly down his luck he provides a perfect contrast to Eugene O'Hare's preppy and outwardly successful Austin. Under Phillip Breen's direction their chemistry crackles as they pace around each other and the audience marks time with them waiting for the atmosphere between the brothers to reach boiling point, when it does the energy is explosive. Their physicality and intensity is beautifully framed by Max Jones's cinematic set. Dysfunctional families are a mainstay of reality television but the underlying darkness and fragility of the brothers' relationship on a knife edge is deeply unsettling particularly because of Ferns' ability to transform in a second from apparently mild-mannered to ruthlessly threatening.
 
The brooding sibling rivalry in the play spilled over as the howling of the coyotes intensified while the rain pounded the roof of the Citizens with all the wrath of the Gods. It was so loud that for a moment it felt like part of Andrea J Cox's dramatic soundscape as the play reached its crescendo and somehow added to the dramatic tension - the flooding outside the theatre soon brought the audience back to reality. 
 
As the heat intensifies the action on stage boils over teetering along the edge of reason leaving the audience laughing hysterically and with an unsatisfied craving for toast. Barbara Rafferty's arrival as the brothers' Mom leaves the audience nervously laughing as she surveys the devastation and the dysfunction of the family becomes even more evident. 
 
This American classic deserves to run and run at the Citz but Glasgow would soon have a bread shortage as the toast craving audiences spilled into the night. Unmissable.
 
 
The Skinny

by Susannah Radford.
 
Domestic in content it may be but Sam Shepard’s emotionally charged tale about an American family is the stuff of epics. A modern Greek tragedy, it’s also part western with the drama following fighting brothers who circle each other for one final face off. 
 
In the Californian heat, where crickets eat through the silence and coyotes scrap like siblings, two brothers meet again at their mother’s house after five years. Hollywood is calling for the younger ‘good’ brother Austin. His screenplay is about to be bought when elder, ‘bad’ brother Lee (drifter and petty thief) steals the deal away from him.
 
The fall out is full on. Jealousy and rivalry lead to violence and chaos. And yet there’s a sameness to each scene: these brothers are stuck on a relationship repeat. Lee gets aggressive and calls the shots; Austin backs down. There’s a perverse sense of pleasure with a role reversal, but relief turns to understanding when mum finally returns home and ignores it all.
 
It’s a tour de force performance from Alex Ferns. His Lee is domineering, wild and monstrous. Matching his commitment is Eugene O’Hare’s Austin. Neat and slightly camp, he excels as Austin turns the tables on his brother. The final scenes are hilarious, absurd and intense.
 
While it’s framed in a beautifully filmic way, this descent into madness does not make for easy viewing. It is exhausting and uncomfortable. After watching True West, I went home and ate some toast. After such craziness, it seemed the only thing to do. 
 
 
Milngavie Herald

by David Hepburn
 
True West has become something of an American classic since its premiere in San Francisco more than three decades ago.

Over the years many of the finest Hollywood actors have relished the challenge of Sam Shephard’s dark tale - including such luminaries as Tommy Lee Jones, John Malkovich, Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly.
 
Watching the latest production at the Citizens Theatre - starring former EastEnders baddie Alex Ferns and Northern Irish writer and actor Eugene O’Hare - it’s easy to see what attracts such heavyweights to the play. The story of sibling rivalry between two brothers taking care of their mother’s house is an actor’s dream, with both main roles offering the chance to flex the full range of thespian muscles.
 
Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter on the verge of a major deal, while Lee is a crooked drifter who lives life on the edge of society. Lee’s outsider charm works wonders on a powerful movie producer (played with suitable slickness by Steven Elliot), persuading him to drop Austin’s script in favour of a trashy cliched Western. In the process he unleashes a torrent of jealousy and violence which threatens to destroy both men.
 
Alex Ferns commits completely to the ne’er-do-well Lee, his brash exterior betrayed by scared and vulnerable eyes. He treds the fine line between comedy and tragedy with skill, provoking laughs and gasps in equal measure. It’s a bravura performance which only spins out of control at one point in the second half - when his sheer levels of rage threaten to leave him nowhere to go before successfully regrouping.
 
The level of kineticism slightly overshadows O’Hare at first, but he too delivers a fine performance which gets better the more the buttoned-up Austin unravels.
 
Phillip Breen directs the play tightly as a whole, while allowing the actors space to relish in the massively-physical set-pieces, whether smashing a typewriter with a golf club or showering themselves in cheap lager.
 
The pay-off when the long-suffering mother (played by Glasgow favourite Barbara Rafferty) returns home is pure comedy - the simple act of placing a coaster prompting a round of applause - before the darkness descends once again for a perfectly cinematic freeze-frame ending.
 
 
Edinburgh Guide

by Irene Brown
 
The clicking of crickets and the howling of an ever increasing pack of coyotes are the backdrop to this cinematically portrayed American drama.
 
Sam Shepard’s modern classic, regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest plays and one of Shepard’s greatest works, is a taut and tense tale about two diverse siblings. Austin (Eugene O’ Hare) is a budding Hollywood screen writer who is conservatively married with kids. He is trusted with looking after his mother’s house while she is on holiday in Alaska. His brother Lee (Alex Ferns) is a hard drinking, manipulative bum (in the American sense) who turns up after following his father’s feckless footsteps and living for some time in the desert. When Lee decides he has an idea for a movie ('leave the films to the French') that’s every bit as good as his brother’s old rivalries emerge and erupt.
 
Brilliantly directed by Phillip Breen and in a set of detailed design from Max Jones, each scene appears like a live piece of cinema (who needs 3D glasses?) with the stage screen opening horizontally. Perfect order turns to anarchic chaos as the brothers’ opposing worlds collide, exposing lies and hypocrisy in each of the men’s lives as the American Dream appears for one as suddenly as it disappears for the other.
 
This comic drama that is as black as a lump of chewin’ tabaccy has had its main protagonists portrayed by the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, John Malkovich, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, but this Glasgow cast steps up to the mark giving all round silver star performances. This is most true in the case of Alex Ferns, back to his home town to play the monstrous Lee. Barbara Rafferty has a brief but significant role as the coiffed and suited seen-it-all Mom to which she brings suitable sang froid.
 
If you can get yourself through to the Dear Green Place before 16 November when the run ends, this show is worth lassoing.
 
 
The Journal
by Laura A Brown
 
Exploding at the Citizens Theatre, The Journal inspects Sam Shepard's stark portrayal of sibling struggles.
 
The blinds blink, illuminating an ordinary, domestic scene: a table strewn with papers, coffee cups cluttering counters, the blank brightness of a Californian morning. Seize it. This familiarity is True West’s only certainty, scarred as it becomes with insanity.
 
Entering this dignified, maternal home of responsibility shoots Lee, the reckless antidote to perfect brother Austin. Lee is ragged, drifting, uncontrollable; the humorous hate-fuelled antagonist of the strict characters Austin taps confidently onto paper. An aspiring screenwriter, Austin almost arrives at the valley of Dreams—the American ideal— but True West’s intrinsic direction is towards the sand, sea, to tears, to suffocation, to drowning.
 
Despite the cinematic brightness of the domestic backdrop, the laughter is as black as the shadows or the decaying leaves of Mom’s prized plants. Intoxicated, hilarious scenes are carefully balanced with the increasing murderous tension between the brothers. Natural decline serves as a precursor to sibling disintegration as Lee and Austin (L.A.) morph into one: the asphyxiating city, the suppression of earth, the suffocation of American ethics.
 
These ideals are transatlantic. True West premiered in San Francisco in 1980, steadily attaining appraisal and arriving to Glasgow in 2013 under the experienced direction of Phillip Breen. With a small, but superb, cast including Eugene O’Hare and Alex Ferns, audiences have immediately identified with the stark, humorous realism; perhaps seeing in the dialogue the illusion of Glaswegian banter.
 
The climax is a whisky-brimmed blowout; a literal banquet that the audience can smell and decipher. Senses are lit; brotherhood is burned, but the true beauty is in the static confusion.
 
True West is not simply a tale of siblings, it is the exploration of a country’s personal and patriarchal history, with a good slice of sadism on the side. Laughter is guaranteed, but beyond sound lies a frightening conception of what remains at the end of the compass arrow.
 
 


 
 

 Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Eugene O'Hare. Photo © Pete Le May
  

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
  

 Photo © Pete Le May
 

Alex Ferns. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Photo © Pete Le May
 

 Photo © Pete Le May
 

  Photo © Pete Le May
 

Steven Elliot. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Barbara Rafferty. Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Phillip Breen
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 

Photo © Pete Le May
 
 


 
 

 


  
 


 
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