Tag Archives: Sam Shepard

Oh Brother


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.


The truth ain’t out there, bro. Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn (Photo: Marc Brenner)




An American horror story

Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 22nd November, 2011

This revival of an early work by American dramatist Sam Shepard is spot on. The tone is exactly right. A very strong cast breathe life into the oddball characters in a way that makes them seem realistic and disturbing in that realism. They could have wandered in from the set of Twin Peaks or any other David Lynch production, for that matter.

The set, a sparsely furnished living room in a remote Illinois farmhouse, is overshadowed by a field of corn. Tall, emaciated plants hang over the characters’ lives like desiccated triffids. This cornfield descends as a curtain to cover the transitions between the three acts, a constant reminder of the mysterious event that has shaped all of their lives. This is not a case of something nasty in the woodshed but buried in the soil out back.

As the title prefigures, this dread secret is bound to come to light, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy and as the story unfolded, I found myself reminded of other works by other playwrights: the inner life of the characters, the thought sequences are like a blue-collar Arthur Miller. If Willy Loman had been a farmer he would have fitted right in, on the sofa beside debilitated patriarch Dodge (a splendid Matthew Kelly who manages to dominate the scene even though he never stands up throughout the play). The incest and infanticide suggest Tennessee Williams in the boondocks – all of these comparisons have been made by others elsewhere, but for me, the play has strongest kinship with Harold Pinter. The Homecoming in particular sprang to mind: The dysfunctional family, the lack of communication, the menacing undertones, the violent outbursts, a member of the younger generation bringing his female partner to meet the family… It’s all there.

How Shepard makes this his own is more than using the American idiom. With symbolism Henrik Ibsen would be proud of, he teases out and exposes details of these damaged people’s circumstances. More questions are raised than are answered. The overall effect is devastating but you’re not sure why exactly. He uses the three-act structure to show we cannot possibly know people and their lives and motivations in so neat a package and by extension, we cannot possibly fully know other people’s lives at all.

The set is as impressive as the cast. Light shines up through the cracks in the floorboards – more symbolism: the secret coming to the surface. Among the impressive troupe is Michael Beckley’s one-legged Bradley ( the limb was lost in some nebulous incident with a chainsaw). His first entrance is in silence. He manipulates his artificial leg so he can stoop to plug in his clippers in order to cut his father’s hair while he sleeps. It is a scene redolent with menace and humour, grotesque and thrilling. Catrin Stewart as girlfriend-brought-home Shelly is very much our eyes, asking the questions the audience wants to ask. That the answers don’t come and that she has more to her than meets the eye conflate the intrigue.

Director Paul Kerryson delivers a powerful evening at the theatre. That you’re puzzling it out all the way home is not a criticism. This is an engaging production that makes you want to understand. The cleverness of the writing means we are afforded the opportunity to fill in the gaps ourselves. Like Shelly, we piece together our own version of events.

How much of it was real? How much of it memory? And whose memory?

Don’t ask me!