Originally premiered in 1980 in San Francisco and first produced in the UK at the National in 1981 with the late Bob Hoskins and Antony Sher, Sam Shepard's True West is now an established contemporary masterpiece, and much beloved of actors wanting to test their acting mettle. I saw the National's production, and have since seen the pairings of Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko (at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly (on Broadway in 2000), both directed by Matthew Warchus in productions that had the actors swap the roles they were playing nightly.
The two estranged brothers at the centre of the play that each pairing played are seemingly chalk and cheese – one being a professional Hollywood screenwriter and the other a drifter who burgles homes for a living – who are reunited for the first time in five years at their mother's Californian home. But in the course of this bracing, brilliant play, they effectively swap roles entirely, so the fact that the actors did so, too, from night to night seemed fitting.
But Phillip Breen's new production at the Tricycle, which was first seen at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow last year, pulls off no such stunt. Instead, the two actors – physically contrasted between the bulky Alex Ferns as Lee and the lean, muscular Eugene O'Hare as Austin – couldn't be more different, yet as they circle around each other, at first warily and then more combustibly, there's a gradual transformation in each.
It's spellbinding to watch. Shepard's play maintains a thrilling tension between them throughout the play, and the two actors here seize and exploit it for all its worth. At first the production is all Pinteresque pauses and menace; but then it explodes in verbal and physical violence that is reminiscent of Mamet as they fight for possession and control. The visit of Steven Elliot's Saul, a film producer, creates a power shift between them as Lee's pitch of a film idea is accepted over the script that Austin has been long developing.
This blistering, shattering play has delivered again.