I cannot lie to you. The entirety of my (cough, 18 month) critical practice is based off one thing and one thing only – an acceptance, nay, an embrace of my own subjectivities. An acute understanding that I, Ava Wong Davies, can never be truly neutral in any review I write. So, on the basis of that, let’s get one thing straight.
I think Johnny Flynn is fucking hot.
And that this production of True West, despite all the hotness spread out onto the stage like hot butter on toast, is not very good.
(Side note: one of my notes just reads “JF?? TOPLESS??”. Sure, yeah, not my finest moment as a critic. I’m only human. Let me live)
Look, Harington and Flynn obviously have good taste if they wanted to do True West. It’s a strange play, a slippery one, a play which teeters continually on the edge of total savagery and chaos. And I love True West. I think it’s a masterpiece of fraying, normative masculinity, peppered with terrible, dark humour wrangled from the edge of the void.
But for the most part, I sat there, sort of unable to figure out whether or not Flynn and Harington were Doing The Good Acting or just being Pretty Charismatic And Doing A Bit Of Shouting Sometimes. They were good, at points – Flynn conveying the intense insecurity at the heart of the posturing Lee, Harington pretty convincing as the buttoned-down, “civilised” Austin, sort of resembling a young Joaquin Phoenix. But then that just made me think how sick it would be if Joaquin Phoenix did True West. And then that made me think of the Ethan Hawke/Paul Dano/James MacDonald Broadway True West which opens in a few weeks, and how fucking amazing that sounds. Then I told myself to shut up and focus.
The design is totally gorgeous. Jon Bausor’s set is sort of on a diagonal, narrowing as it gets further back, playing with perspective, suggesting a depth to the little Southern Californian condo where there is actually none, and Joshua Carr’s lighting is delicate but effectively disorientating, peeking through the constantly closed blinds, muddling up time, distorting any concept we might have of place or time – or reality. Flynn swaggers around the set like a lanky German Shepherd staking out his territory, and all the grand posturing that goes on between him and Harington could – maybe – be a comment on how these two brothers are performing!!!tired modes!!!!of masculinity!!!! However, it could also just be some shaky acting. I can’t quite tell, which doesn’t bode particularly well.
The direction, it has to be said, doesn’t really feel like it helps. True West hinges on menace – it’s what made that Tricycle production a few years ago work so well – those expressionistic yet understated moments – when the curtain rose and the stage was flooded with blood red light, the soundscape in the scene changes consisting only of the howl of coyotes and click of cicadas. That production, for me, was iconic because it really understood and embraced the strangeness and abstractness of Shepard’s text. This doesn’t. It’s overly choreographed – the fights, the drunken carousing, the trashing of the apartment. None of it feels truly menacing or messy, or like that violence and savagery could spill out of the confines of the stage. And Dunster has this peculiar tendency to direct his actors downstage and stare out into the audience when delivering a particularly important thematic monologue. It’s patronising. The audience are smarter than this. They can pick it up without you getting Harington and Flynn to fling metaphors directly at them.
(There is also an interesting homoerotic undertone to the production? Which I thought was kinda fascinating. There’s a moment, right at the end, when Harington and Flynn are a hairsbreadth away from each other, silhouetted by blinding white light, and your immediate thought is: kiss!! But maybe that was just me.)
There’s a moment when Flynn chucks a glass, or bottle or something, out of the back door of the house in a fit of fury and despair. You flinch, expecting to hear the crack of broken glass, but it never comes. Yeah. That’s kinda what this production is like.
True West is on at Vaudeville Theatre until 23rd February.