A True "True West" by Phillip Breen

Director Phillip Breen has been telling us about how he prepares for a production like True West. In this first post, Phillip explains the importance of considering the time when the play was written, and what's going on in the world today.

Austin: Now that's a real story. True to life.

On the surface of things nothing much happens in True West. Two brothers meet in their mum's house 40 miles east of Los Angeles. One is a relatively successful writer, one's a drifter and petty criminal who has spent (conservatively) three months wandering in the Mojave desert.

The characters, such as they are, are contradictory, they might not even be real, the story, such as it is, makes little sense, there's no real beginning, middle or end, no-one appears to learn anything. And the whole thing feels like a mad dream.
Phillip Breen in rehearsals. Photo by Tim Morozzo.
But it is one of the best plays I have ever read.

How is this the case?

What has obsessed actors, directors and designers about this play? How does one go about starting to make a production of this astonishing play?

I start from a feeling in the pit of my stomach, that this play is astonishing because it’s true.
True to life.

Plays reveal things about ourselves that are difficult to express in any other way; revealing fears, dreams, anxieties about the writer and the writer's first audience. So to make a play live in 2013 I try to understand as much as I can of the culture that surrounded the play and that gave birth to it in order to translate it to now. Some of you will recall my production of The Shadow of A Gunman by Sean O'Casey - the setting for this was an Imperial power on its last legs, trapped in an unwinnable war, a place where young men leapt out of doorways to murder soldiers, and those soldiers met these acts of "terrorism" with savage reprisals, which inspired more desperate young men to kill. The story was set in Ireland in 1921, but one can see how this became a play about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the psychology of occupation.

The Shadow Of A Gunman 2006 - Michael Glenn Murphy, Terri Chandler Photo: Richard Campbell
There are three things that I try and get my head around when I start work on a play. Those things form a little triangle, and if those three things are working hand in hand in your thinking then you have a chance of giving a full and rounded account of a classic play and recreating its meaning and its shock for a contemporary audience.

1) The time in which the play was written - what was going on in the world when the play was being written. What was the writer reacting against? What made the play shocking to an (in the case of True West) a 1980 audience? What did the first audience think they were going to see? What did people think was going to happen? So many of the plays of the mid-20th century are written under the shadow of the atomic bomb and the very real possibility of a nuclear holocaust.

2) What was going on in the writer’s personal life? - Why did this writer need to write this play at this point in history? Which artists did he admire? Paul McCartney wanted to be Buddy Holly for example. What personal experiences did he bring to bear on the writing of this play? How does it relate to other of his works?  

3) What's going on now? - Why is this play relevant now? Why should we do it now? What's it got to say to a Scottish audience in 2013? What expectations are contemporary audiences going to bring to the play? How do we translate some things implicit in the play that might be difficult to understand for a modern audience?

True West was written by Sam Shepard in 1980. That year America was going through an identity crisis: defeat in Vietnam, the impeachment of Nixon after the Watergate scandal and a decline in American industrial power. The promise and optimism of post-war America had given way to cynicism and pessimism about the future. The Cold war was still at its height, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and there was an ongoing hostage crisis in Iran (detailed in Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo) where several American diplomats were held hostage in Tehran by revolutionary students.
Sam Shepard
It seemed somehow appropriate that in 1980, America turned to a President who used to pretend to be a cowboy for a living (he even referred to the job as "the role of a lifetime"). This President [Ronald Reagan] self-consciously used the image of the Wild West in his election campaign in an attempt to restore America's optimism and its self-confidence. For many Americans it worked, but for others the gap between the mythology of the old west and the reality it was enlisted to represent had never been greater.
To artists such as Sam Shepard, by 1980, the gap between the myth and the 'reality' of America was a subject of profound importance.
In the next post, we’ll explore 1980, America’s relationship with the Western, and its influence on the play.

Alex Ferns in True West Rehearsals Photo: Tim Morozzo

True West plays at the Citizens Theatre Tue 29 Oct – Sat 16 Nov