Feuding brothers trying to come to terms with their father’s past abuses, inarticulate exchanges punctuated by testosterone- and alcohol-fuelled violence, in a mythic realist landscape of the frontier west – it can all mean only one thing: we’re in a Sam Shepard play.
But even if the territory may seem a little over-familiar, it’s good to be back when, like this, the writing has the bite of a rattlesnake. Shepard directed the original production himself in San Francisco in 2000, where it starred Sean Penn and Nick Nolte – a hard act to follow but Michael Attenborough’s gripping and mordantly funny European premiere punches its full weight.
Although initially inspired by a 1931 Frank O’Connor short story, Shepard’s play is partly autobiographical, with the character of the title being based on his own violently alcoholic father. The fact that he took more than ten years to complete it after his father died in the late eighties shows perhaps how difficult it was to write about such a painfully personal experience, and the play certainly has the feeling of attempting to lay the ghosts of the past.
It shows two brothers, Earl and Ray, who have not seen each other for many years, returning to their family home in New Mexico on the death of their estranged father, Henry Moss. While guzzling whiskey and going through his belongings, they inevitably reminisce about their upbringing but the elder Earl’s memories seem to be far less traumatic than the more intense Ray, who accuses Earl of running out on them after one especially savage attack by the drunken Henry on their mother.
Ray becomes suspicious of the fact that Earl has apparently been sitting with their dead father for three days, after Henry has mysteriously died following a bizarre fishing trip with his Native American girlfriend Conchalla. In detective-story fashion, Ray interrogates his brother, Henry’s meekly solicitous Mexican neighbour Esteban and the nervously ingratiating taxi-driver who drove Henry back home, as he tries to piece together what actually happened on that fateful day.
The play’s sibling rivalry is reminiscent of Shepard’s masterpiece True West, while the idea of exposing dark family secrets was done brilliantly in Buried Child, but I don’t remember quite so much black – or macabre – humour in previous works. This tone is set right from the start as in the background of designer Robert Jones’s deliciously squalid open-plan homestead Henry’s covered corpse can be seen lying on a bed with the upward-pointing feet exposed. While before each act a ghostly danse macabre takes place between the drunkenly groping Henry and Conchalla, as Ray uncovers the truth flashbacks reveal the larger-than-life Henry’s last hours.
This is great domestic drama: the idea of the brothers being tied together by the inescapable events of the past yet alienated by their contrasting responses to them works very well, as does the ambiguity about the differences between history and legend, truth and memory. But Shepard seems to be straining too hard to make the Moss family a metaphor for American society (referring to Henry’s wartime experience as a bomber pilot), and the attempt to insert a mystical element (with Henry as a spiritually dead man walking) fails to convince.
Our sympathies shift between the two brothers as at first Ray seems gratuitously aggressive but then we feel Earl is hiding something, with the palpable tension between them powerfully conveyed by, respectively, Andrew Lincoln’s desperate probing and Brendan Coyle’s determined denial. Trevor Cooper gives a barnstorming performance as the bullish redneck Henry, and the exuberant Flaminia Cinque is his sensual nemesis Conchalla. Simon Gregor gives good comic support as the pinny-wearing soup-bearing Esteban, while the hilarious Jason Watkins almost steals the show as the garrulously deferential taxi-driver.
The Late Henry Moss may not be vintage Shepard but it is several notches higher than his anti-Bush rant The God of Hell (premiered here last year at the Donmar). It’s the theatrical equivalent of drinking Jack Daniels neat.