See how these brothers love one another! One (Austin, played by Julian Curtis) is a meek-and-mild, mildly successful Hollywood scriptwriter and family man; the other (Lee, played by Thomas Larkin) is his cultural opposite, a big ne’er-do-well brute of a man, who arrives out of the blue at their mother’s house, where Austin is house-sitting and trying to finish a new play, away from his wife and children. The brothers haven’t seen each other for five years.
Many cultures have a mythical territory, usually in some kind of wilderness, where men are men and all the primitive anti-social values are honoured. In Australia it’s the Outback, even though most people have never been there and wouldn’t know what to do if they were planted there. It’s the myth of the digger, the True Blue Aussie, who encapsulates, even in this urban culture, a getaway ideal that is all we imagine ourselves to be. In the USA it’s the myth of the True West, where urban civilisation has no place, so when Lee turns up at his mother’s modest suburban home in California, he brings all the chaos, and presumably the truth, of the West with him.
Sibling rivalry of every kind immediate sets the theme of the play. Which brother has chosen the more authentic life? Whose side is the audience on – the down-to-earth solid family man who writes screenplays for what we assume are B-grade movies, or the rough beast from the desert? Are they irrevocably different, or can they show that they have some needs/values in common as they gradually merge into each other?
The outsider’s point of view is reflected in a screen producer named Saul (Charles Allen) – that he is black is not important to the play, but it does emphasise his status as the Other – who gradually perceives the brothers melding into one another and offers rough-hewn Lee, who is practically illiterate, a chance to write a screen-play of his own, then disappears.
This idea turns out to be a disaster, of course, but for Austin, family ties are more important than personal ambition, so the brothers try to co-operate in an increasingly chaotic and angry project which leads to more violence and drunkenness, until the end of the play, when their mother (a very tight and convincingly puzzled performance from Christen O’Leary) comes home unexpectedly from her cruise only to encounter domestic anarchy. For her, home is now no longer home, so rather than cleaning up the mess she retreats to a motel, while the brothers come to blows and the question of whether they are going to reconcile with each other, or whether it’s going to end in fratricide, is left unresolved.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. But whether this is because the mother, the centre of the family, the glue that holds this fragile family together, walks away from the situation is never explained. After all, her husband, who doesn’t appear in the play, had himself retreated to the West many years before, and may be the reason for the dysfunctional family, but as audience we have nothing to go on except the current situation.
In this sense, then, it all depends on the production. Thomas Larkin and Julian Curtis have big shoes to fill if they are to follow successfully in the footsteps of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jon Malkovich (in previous separate productions of Sam Shepard’s play). But they do it very well. Thomas Larkin as Lee immediately brings the threat of menace alive, to the extent that he is terrifying in his unpredictable responses. He quite literally gave me the shudders with the reality of his angry performance, but he also managed to demand for Lee a modicum of respect as we get to know him.
Julian Curtis, as the screen writer Austin, is at first entirely predictable as the dogged success story of the family, who like all writers needs time alone to work on his script. He manages the shift from quiet confidence to incandescent rage very convincingly, and when he too falls into a drunken fury, we begin to understand the truth that the producer Saul sees, that they are indeed versions of the same man. But not even their mother really cottons on to this truth, or of the truth of the play in general, that we are all brothers under the skin.
If it’s true – and we are left to work this out for ourselves – it’s a terrifying truth, and the deliberately ambiguous ending brings no satisfaction. All we can do as an audience is to retreat from the situation, just as the men’s mother does, and to wonder in despair whether this all there is.
This is a production that grows on an audience, from being rather dull and predictable in the first couple of scenes, to a growing sense of alarm and despair. For me, it was literally the heart of darkness.