STC True West Wayne Blair

Every now and then, I get a text message which changes my evening… “I have a spare ticket to STC’s True West Tonight, would you like to snaffle it up?” As a self-professed compulsive snaffler – I went, it’s always a beautiful experience to head out to the Wharf… lights off the water – and a mellow feeling of all being right with the world… I guess it’s the excellent company I keep, because often it isn’t the play’s message which is telling me that all is right with the world. And this is certainly true of True West.

This is one of those occasions when I know I don’t have to write anything (I am under no obligation from publicist nor website to say anything about the production…) but sometimes I am compelled to give my response to the work I see – as a means of recording my perspective- my thinking about theatre – about what it means in the grand cultural context. And I am going to write mainly about the ideas – not the production here… (And I guess this is why so many theatre companies hate onliners/blogger etc – we are somewhat loose cannons – unlike those that write for mainstream print publications.)

For those who are fans of Sam Shepard – True West was a definite “go -see” on their calendar, and for those mesmerized by the direction of one of the true gentlemen of stage and screen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and then, if it has two of Australia’s best loved actors (Wayne Blair and Brendan Cowell) – well seeing it is a must and a no-brainer.

OK quick lazy blurb from
“In True West, Sam Shepard tells the tale of two brothers. Austin, a “successful” young man with a family and a budding screenwriting career house-sits for his mother who is away on vacation. He has come here for privacy to work on a screenplay, but is quickly interrupted by his brother Lee, an unshaven alcoholic, thief, and “loser” who has also decided to return home. At first, Lee only intends to steal a few items of value from his mother’s neighbors, then move on. Although Austin protests, he quickly realizes there is little he can do to change his brother’s behavior and simply requests that he be out of the house by the following day when Austin is expecting a visit from a Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer.”

From another hemisphere and thirty years on, True West has a deep history of production and perhaps holds great sentimental value for Hoffman in particular having won a Tony Award for acting in a production in 2000. Also interesting to note that both actors in this STC production are well aware of the complexities and challenges of writing… both having written for stage and screen. So the connection to the story – the stakes – the pressure they so skillfully embody is very realistic and very understandable.

The American suite of programming of the Sydney Theatre Company has traversed much of The States’ history and landscape and of course Sam Shepard is an integral part of the portrait. Fine. OK. Nice. We’ve had a good run of the white American male playwright (no I didn’t notice any American female playwrights in there… nor plays by Americans from non-Anglo backgrounds… did you?) so the homage is complete.

Or is it?.

I just can’t help but be exhausted by the feeling that these plays are a showcase of Australian actor’s ability to mimic the voices, culture of “elsewhere” – I can’t help but think of all the Australian playwrights waiting for the opportunity for much needed (and deserved Stage time) – I can’t help but think of all our stories that are eclipsed by the already powerful and influential American play writing canon. I cringe. I know this is an American season – but I just really wish STC were cultural leaders within Australia leading with Australian culture – because gee we need it… and America doesn’t need any help from us branding itself as all things good and fair and bright and just. America advertises itself enough, doesn’t it? Haven’t we been staturted by TV, film, music, politics for the US enough? I yearn for a time when Australian art and entertainment is put first in Australia – where we can hear our own voices – our own stories? Our stories specifically talking about Australian places and people (not neutralized incase another country would find it too confronting dealing with a play that mentions “city rail” or “Bennelong point.” But perhaps that’s just me?

There were things I loved about the production – I loved the scene changes – and the score by Max Lyandvert. But I have no idea why or how it was so brutally contemporary feeling – when everything else from set designer (Richard Roberts) was six shades of beige and drenched in period costume (Alice Babidge). I wondered about the design choice to keep this as a museum piece? I comment mainly because I was looking/marvelling/ examining the design alot and I found it quite distracting. Very distracting. I think Cowell and Blair are both fascinating actors – brutal, masculine and solid in their own right – but I felt a quite dis-ease at the casting of Cowell as Austin… I would have been very curious to see the roles reversed – to see Blair’s fierce intelligence in the role of Austin.

As a script – I didn’t find it particularly surprising the trajectory is fairly straight forward… the decent of the good boy who’s hard work can be suddenly thwarted by an external force (hmmm GFC anyone?). Perhaps this would have resonated a little more for me (here and now) if Australia HAD suffered catastrophically at the hands of the GFC – or if Australia had a grand “Dream” beyond the seemingly adoring compulsion to invest in and celebrate American celebrity and “culture” (or advertising depending on how you look at it). But truly, I don’t think Australia really feels or fully understands the sharp, brutal disappointment of the crumbling American Dream – judging by our theatre programming choices and the choice to employ US directors means we are still tangled up in our own adoring doe-eyed staring at the glitz and glamour of the American “other.” I kinda think that Australia still believes in the American dream – despite what plays like True West show us. And we want it to be true and possible… and why wouldn’t we?