Theatre review: True West

A finely acted drama of a fine writer’s dilemma.

I first encountered Sam Shepard’s work in the late 70s, through two little plays: the freewheeling Red Cross and the iconic Cowboy Mouth. The latter is particularly wonderful. Co-created with Patti Smith, it is funny, alive, and absolutely itself.

Shepard’s themes then, as they were to remain, were purity and corruption in an America which embodied both. At first he drew his images from crime and music. Later he embraced (as is the case in True West) movies and the American frontier.

The action in his plays was arbitrary, the mood rhapsodic, swinging wildly between euphoria and despair. There was magic about them. Long visionary speeches erupted like solo improvisations. His influences, so I learned, were Beckett, Jasper Johns, jazz and rock. And above all Shepard was cool. His plays, his look, his dress sense, his whole persona was cool – though whether by nature or as part of a carefully-honed style, it was hard to tell.

Three distinct periods unfolded over the years: the early plays, full of surreal imagery, magic, trance and vision; the middle plays, kicked-of by one of his most widely performed works, The Curse of the Starving Class, which are less spontaneous and more self-consciously ‘important’; and then a return to his earlier style. True West sits slap-bang in the middle. 

While not autobiographical, True West is, in one way, a play about Shepard’s talent at war with itself. It pits the natively gifted against the calculating. Like his playwriting career, like his cool persona, it pits the natural against the practiced. 

Embodying the two forces energising Shepard’s talent are brothers Lee and Austin, here respectively played by this production’s producers, Jacob Golding and Sam Tooker.  

Golding and Tooker are very good indeed. They are young and relatively inexperienced actors, yet it only takes a few moments for the audience to realise we are in safe hands. The two young men are so at ease in their roles, and in their bodies and voices. 

Two brothers: one cultivated and cautious; the other brutish and unrestrained. Over the course of the story, their positions are reversed. It’s a familiar, even cliched, formula. However, the quality of the acting and direction elevates the characters above stereotypes. Sophisticated and subtle, in the hands, minds and mouths of these actors, Lee and Austin take on a corporeality verging on the real. It’s like a piece of music by Copland: there’s no fudging, no sleight-of-hand, no imaginary notes, only the real ones you hear: egoless, material, substantial. It is an achievement. 

They are fortunate in having as director Penny McDonald: an esteemed, even revered, theatre practitioner and acting teacher. The questioning intelligence behind the action, the shaping of characters which avoids, or rather transcends, cliché, the evenness of pitch, the sheer solidity of the people presented on the stage – these all speak to a rigour that will settle for nothing less than truth, and sensitive, firm and nurturing directorial oversight.

The two main actors are joined briefly on stage by Alex Sangston – solid and suitably brash as a movie big shot – and McDonald as Mom. This last is a mistake for, with the director trapped back stage during, one presumes, final rehearsals and certainly during performances, some aspects of the production have suffered. The rhythms of the production are often mismanaged, with entrances and exits poorly timed and ‘placed’, and ‘moments’ lacking their weight: all matters which would have been resolved by a director not trapped behind the scenes.

Read: Opera review: Women of the Pietà

The physical production does not meet the high standard of acting and direction, particularly the set which, while functional, is unimaginative and poorly executed. It does not, however, detract from this production’s real achievement: two very fine performances. 

True West by Sam Shepard
The Hidden Theatre, Hobart

Director: Penny McDonald
Set Design: Jacob Golding and Nathan Golding
Sound Composer: Jacob Golding
Lighting Designer: Penny McDonald
Stage Manager: Milla Chaffer

Producer: Jacob Golding and Sam Tooker
Cast: Lee Jacob Golding, Austin Sam Tooker, Saul Alex Sangston, Mom Penny McDonald

Tickets: $25 – $40

True West will be performed until 25 September 2022.

Robert Jarman is a freelance director, performer, writer and designer based in Hobart, Tasmania.