Theatre review: True West, fortyfivedownstairs

Sibling rivalry resurfaces in this classic Sam Shepard play.

Sam Shepard’s play True West is a sure indication of the axiom that the crack in everything is how the light gets in. He was the last of a generation of American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, who probed the depths of the suburban American psyche. Like Miller, who was married to Marilyn Monroe for five years, Shepard had a relationship with a blonde actress – for him it was Jessica Lange. But the way in which he was most similar to Miller was his debt to that great Swedish modernist August Strindberg, in the view that all human relationships are basically broken, but that the mystery is in finding the line of the break.

It’s not difficult to see why the dramatically named Australian production company Human Sacrifice Theatre has chosen to revive True West today. At a moment when rising cost of living pressures and slowing growth is leading to fewer jobs and more fragmented family relationships, Shepard’s story of two brothers improvising a living in a spare desert where they’ve gone to escape the pressures of modern life is certainly resonant.

A strong two-hander for its male leads, the play premiered in 1980 and was revived in 2000 with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly (who famously alternated the roles during the run). Like those two US heavyweights, Australian actors Mark Diaco and Justin Hosking also succeed in playing and alternating the two lead roles. 

The story revolves around two brothers – one escaping a failed marriage – who temporarily housesit for their mother and try to write a screenplay they think will lead to a more glamorous escape, until cracks appear too in this dream. A memorable turn by Fiona Stewart, as the character simply titled ‘Mom’, cannot save this play from its relentless masculine egocentricity: we are in the domain of angry young men, and their will-to-power to succeed at any cost. 

But it is a play that is smart enough to know its own limitations, and that quality is what gives Shepard his pathos as well as his remaining cultural currency – an episode of Buffy featuring a moment of amorous male arrogance takes the name of one of Shepard’s plays, in an unlikely shout-out.

This version is helped along by smart direction and production, an expert team of designers and producers and the commitment of the actors to the material: Diaco trained in New York and has revived a number of US works for the Australian stage. Hosking has worked with some of Australia’s best directors and you can see notes of a bureaucrat from The Hollowmen in his portrayal of a man hollowed out by his failing marriage and his fading dream. 

This American play lands at the moment when our national consciousness is especially concerned with its own authenticity, and finding its Voice. The dream of a national theatre company seems further away than ever in our fragmented democracy, but one reason it recurs is the promise of a production of a play like True West that would take Australia’s west seriously, with its deserts fractured by fracking and its Pilbara populated by diverse Indigenous and itinerant groups.

Read: Musical review: La Cage Aux Folles, State Theatre

Sometimes a production is designed more for the heart’s desire than the cultural politics of a particular time and this is laudable. But an Australian-inspired True West that strayed from its literal US rootedness wouldn’t just revitalise Australian theatre, it would revitalise endangered language and culture groups worthy of the sublimity of an artistic expression that would give them a voice. 

True West by Sam Shepard

Human Sacrifice Theatre
Director: Lee Mason

Set and Costume Designer: Peter Mumford
Lighting Designer: Kris Chainey
Sound Designer: Dmitri Golovko
Stage Manager: Teri Steer
Co-Producer: Sophie Muckart

Cast: Justin Hosking, Mark Diaco, Kevin Summers, Fiona Stewart
Tickets: $32-$70

True West will be performed until 7 May 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin