Director Matthew Dunster makes commendably
light work of Sam Shepard’s heavy play. With a couple of star names attached –
Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn – the production is enjoyable and entertaining.
Dunster and his cast, who play two
bickering brothers, have a keen appreciation of Shepard’s humour. Even as their
antics flip from the sinister to the increasingly desperate, elements of the
absurd are emphasised. While the siblings’ estrangement has a longer history
than Harington or Flynn manage to suggest and the tension throughout could be
sharper (Flynn is never quite as physically threatening as the text suggests), these
are detailed studies and the performances are worth the price of admission.
Harington is unrecognisable as the geeky Austin, a semi-successful screen
writer. His rivalry with Lee, who Flynn makes a charismatic rogue, is subtly
played. As the movie Austin thought he had lined up is canned, in preference to
a feeble pitch that part-time crook Lee thought up and promoted through a
combination of gambling and “beginner’s luck”, the professional setback leads
to a breakdown that Harington makes very convincing.
Austin’s occupation – and, through it, Shepard’s exploration of writing – proves tiresome. The illusions crafted in movies (not films, please note) are all a part of exploring that old American Dream. Admittedly Shepard does this in credible detail. The sense of time and place is wonderful – credit to Jon Bausor’s set and costume design here, too – but this is a small spin on an old topic. And credit, also, to raising the problems associated with masculinity at a time before the word toxic was attached to any discussion of men. Sadly, accurate as it may be, True West is ultimately heavy handed despite the efforts of a talented director and his leading men.
Until 23 February 2019
Photo by Marc Brenner
Smartphone screens light up the auditorium before this show begins, indicating that the crowd drawn by Jamie Lloyd’s new production is young and, it’s safe to guess, here for leading man Kit Harington. Good on Lloyd for making an Elizabethan (see below) play trendy. With creepy touches, bold humour and brilliant theatricality it feels as if you’re in with the cool crowd.
Harington is, thankfully, highly credible as the scholar who sells his soul to the devil. He wears just pants for a lot of the play, and even shows his bum a couple of times, but he gives a focused performance that demands to be taken seriously. Harington works well with the ensemble, even joining the innovative dance sections. It isn’t just a physique that is eye-catching here – Polly Bennett’s movement direction adds a sense of adventure, while the lighting design from Jon Clark is stunning.
I might be one of a small number whose real draw to the show isn’t the Game of Thrones star but Jenna Russell, who plays Mephistopheles. Odd I know. Russell’s brilliant performance made my night, with an uncanny ability to be physically threatening, as well as showing the sorrowful side of this fallen angel, creating a moving, grieving quality. Lloyd even gets some songs out of a great vocalist – Kylie’s ‘Better The Devil You Know’ and Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’.
The eclectic mix of music filling the show brings us to its modern additions: Christopher Marlowe’s opening and concluding scenes bookend a new play by Colin Teevan. Things start well by enforcing Faustus’ desire for celebrity. Miming air guitar, the doctor is on the party scene – told to “Sin big. Sin famously” – he’s a magician, clever, with servant Wagner reimagined as a woman called Grace who he falls in love with. Teevan adds compassion as well as contemporary touches that a modern audience easily relates to.
Later satire with attempts at topicality fall flat: bankers, businessmen, Obama, Cameron, Pope Francis and a particularly nasty scene with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have parallels with Marlowe’s seven deadly sins. But the real-life characters are dealt with too crassly. Lloyd likes to shock, and this production will go too far for many, me included, but it is to his credit that he reminds us of theatre’s power to be subversive. Introducing a new audience to this force is something magical.
Until 25 June 2016
Photos by Marc Brenner