Saturday, 16 November 2013

True West

True West is a difficult play to interpret. Despite an apparently simple premise - two brothers duke it out for literary and macho bragging rights - it alludes to grand conflicts without ever settling on a resolution. There's the obvious - Cain and Abel re-imagined for the USA, the battle between the cerebral and carnal energies - and the more obscure (are the two brothers manifestations of the same person, or is their anguish a symbol of 'Merica's double nature?). But Sam Shepherd's script seems unwilling to give up its secrets, content to merely suggest reasons for the brother's enmity before enjoying their inevitable intellectual and physical throw-downs.

Philip Breen's direction goes large on the comedy: Alex Ferns (the big, bad motherfucker) and Eugene O'Neill (the writer) bounce off each other, the walls and the script like old school cartoon characters. The humour, mostly slapstick, is fierce and brutal: the rivalry between the two is so intense, they wave golf-clubs, steal a street's worth of toasters, tear apart the set and wrap telephone cords around each others' necks. Ferns is horrifying, thick and fat, snarling in a high-pitched voice: O'Neill is vulnerable, his occasional boasts laughable for being so frail.

But while Breen's last outing at the Citizens revealed a deft hand with the tragi-comedy (A Day in the Death of Jo Egg, helped by a star cameo turn from Miriam Margoyles), his True West overdoses on the laughter. The final scenes - when the boys remember their dear old dad and his tragic loss of teeth, or finally attempt fratricide (in front of dear old mum) - retain the comedy and don't expose any hidden depths. The last image leaves the battle inconclusive, and the reasons for the fraternal warfare are equally obscure. There's something horrible lurking in the depths, but it never breaks the surface.

Breen's touch is sure, and the comedy goes full-tilt: abandoning any attempt to balance it against tragic motivations, True West is a block-buster, a vicious chuckle-fest that entertains before it provokes. Laughter replaces empathy in the stalls, and Breen works the crowd like a master (Fern and O'Neill are good with the emotions and physical shenanigans: great performances, aside from their accents which wander all over the States and occasionally take quick trips back to Scotland).

Violence as comedy? Respectful of the audience, enough to let them realise on the way to car-park that they have been laughing at the early stages of a murder (or, if this is one man's internal conflict, a mental breakdown)...

No comments :

Post a Comment