Nigel Harman, John Light, John Schwab, Abigail McKern
The term Renaissance Man may be an overused one, but if there’s one person it applies to, it’s Sam Shepard. Actor, director, writer and playwright, he’s come to embody various ideals of American masculinity.
True West, probably his most famous play and certainly his most accessible, has always attracted the more heavyweight of actors.
Gary Sinese and John Malkovich played the leads off-Broadway, while Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly famously took on the mantle during the Tony nominated 2000 revival in New York.
In a nod to that production, Nigel Harman and John Light have opted, like Hoffman and Reilly did, to alternate the lead roles of Lee and Austin: two brothers who, on the surface, are as different as chalk and cheese yet who both yearn for the other’s identity. It’s a fascinating piece of work, and one for which director Paul Miller creates the perfect atmosphere for.
A toss of a coin on press night saw Harman playing Austin, a nervy, uptight screenwriter on the verge of selling a script to a Hollywood film producer while John Light played his brother Lee, a drifter and petty criminal who suddenly crashes back into his life.
Set entirely in the family kitchen, and relying so much on the performance from the two leads, True West is very much an actor’s play. Light plays the role of Lee with brooding charisma, but Harman is never overshadowed, tackling the tricky role of Austin with aplomb.
One of the most impressive aspects of this production is the way the two brothers slowly swap identity. From the moment that Saul Kimmer, the Hollywood producer who dumps Austin’s script in favour of a more commercial pitch from Lee, Austin changes from safe family man into unstable petty thief while Lee becomes ever more obsessed with his screenplay. By the end, it’s like the two brothers have swapped personalities, making the alternating of roles even more appropriate.
Shepard’s dialogue is, of course, a gift for any actor – natural, acerbic and with an almost musical rhythm. Both Harman and Light adopt American accents that hold up reasonably well throughout the play and they both handle the more comedic moments just as well as the more intense scenes.
In fact, it’s the comedy that makes True West such a surprise – the scene where Austin steals multiple toasters and proceeds to make about 30 rounds of toast is brilliantly choreographed, and the moment where Lee trashes the kitchen is lent some unintentional humour by a telephone receiver accidently catching on the kitchen fan.
Although this is primarily a two-hander, John Schwab and Abigail McKern are effective in their small but important roles as Kimmer and the boys’ mother. Yet it’s Light and Harman who dominate the evening. Harman is particularly good, conveying Austin’s quiet desperation and jealousy of his brother’s free spirit. It’s a tribute to both the script and the actors that you can easily imagine each lead in the other’s role.
It adds up to another impressive addition to Daniel Evans’ short career as artistic director at the Crucible, who really has revitalised theatre-going in Sheffield. And with a David Hare retrospective and John Simm’s Hamlet still to come this year, the future for the Crucible is looking brighter than ever.