Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018
I can’t be the first to not the similarities between the work of American playwright Sam Shepard and our own Harold Pinter. This revival of Shepard’s 1980 piece is a case in point. There is a sense of menace coursing through the comedy, the huge chunks of characters’ lives that are unexplained, the sudden outbreaks of violence…
Matthew Dunster’s production comes with stellar casting, with King of the North Kit Harington as screenwriter Austin, and Johnny Flynn as his lowlife brother Lee. Austin is bookish and settled into a conventional lifestyle (wife, kids…) but his work has brought him to the seclusion of his mother’s house. His writing is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, unseen for five years and fresh (if that’s the word) from a three-month stint in the desert. Lee is a burglar, a wastrel with anger management issues – Flynn is powerful in the frequent outbursts, and also swaggering and overbearing in this domineering role. But Harington is not overshadowed and when, through reasons of plot, the roles are reversed, his Austin comes out of his neurotic shell, rolls around drunk, and acquires an impressive collection of toasters from homes around the neighbourhood.
Donald Sage Mackay appears as Saul, Austin’s producer, an equable counterpoint to the volatility of the brothers’ relationship, while Madeleine Potter’s absentee mother makes a brief but telling appearance in the final scene. She seems spaced-out, an ineffectual presence – the fate of women in the American mythos. There is a sense of disconnect here, with what is unsaid looming large – Pinter again!
Jon Bausor’s set with its exaggerated perspective shows a world askew, the angles adding to the claustrophobia. Director Matthew Dunster brings out the humour of Shepard’s script, balanced with the savagery of the brothers. They are koi carp trapped in the same tank. It is with a growing sense of irony that we realise what they do not: they are the idiots chasing each other around in Lee’s terrible idea for a screenplay. Like Tom and Jerry (the domestic violence has a cartoonish feel) they can’t leave each other alone.
That they are screenwriters is hugely pertinent. They are both seeking to perpetuate the myths that permeate American culture: Austin’s love story, Lee’s action-packed dumb chase movie. But when it comes down to it, we find the prescribed modes of masculine behaviour make it impossible for the brothers to function in the real world.
The show is a hot property with hot actors and heated dialogue, with searingly hilarious moments, but when it’s all said and done, and the crickets have finally shut the hell up, the lack of resolution leaves us hanging. And this is exactly why the star of the show is Sam Shepard’s script, reminding us that life, unlike stories, is unresolved and unexplained. Meaning is not always apparent. Perhaps we are all in the desert, chasing each other around.