An Interview With Director Phillip Breen


Written by Don't Panic
29 Friday 29th August 2014

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Sam Shepard's American classic True West is enjoying a revival at London's Tricycle Theatre from 4 September – 4 October. Alex Ferns (Joyeux Noel, 24) and Eugene O'Hare (Red Velvet, The Fall) play alongside each other as warring brothers Lee and Austin.

We recently spoke to the Director, Phillip Breen, about the play’s history, the Western genre and that old stickler, American identity.

Tell us about the experience of directing Sam Shepard's classic play, True West? 

I knew that Eugene and Alex had always wanted to play the brothers, and I'd worked with them both extensively. We've always liked one another too and have a shared sense of humour so we were able to work very quickly and frankly and with real confidence. 

The production history is dominated by two productions: Sinisie and Malkovich and John C Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman. They take very strong lines with the play which have heavily influenced a lot of the received thinking about it. Malkovich's Lee is out of control, all of his demons and madness is foregrounded; it's huge. Sinisie's performance is rather smothered by Malkovich's. I think it's led to Austin's role being a little underconsidered (let alone that of Saul and Mom). The Hoffman / Reilly was characterised by them swapping roles on alternate nights. There's a line in the 7th scene where Austin says about the movie producer Saul "He thinks we're the same person". Lee then tries to be a writer and Austin a petty thief. 

Because we knew each other well we were able to follow our instincts about this deeply mysterious play and not censor one another. As a result I think ours is a distinctive and original reading. I think we sensed that Sam as a writer wasn't censoring himself either, he was following his nose. We tried to discern where he was doing that and follow it ourselves. If it worked we kept it. We didn't analyse it too much.

I'm very passionate that the role swapping isn't right for the play. It's just my opinion - there have been other successful productions who've done it. It's not just that the brothers are demonstrably bad at being each other. The play is not saying that underneath our surface personalities we are all just the same. It isn't nihilistic like that nor essentialist. It's trying to divine what that essential selfhood is - the thing that is just unique to us. 

We felt that there is a deep love between the brothers, a bond of family and a history which drives the play. It certainly helped that Eugene and I had worked on The Caretaker together in ‘08. I think the love between the brothers is the key in that play, the mysterious bond that they don't really understand that draws them together. 

It's a beautiful dramatic poem, True West. Because Alex, Eugene and I had that shorthand we could allow those uncanny and inexplicable moments to ring out in rehearsals and not worry too much about explaining things to the audience. We wanted to resist taming this play. With each other we could be confident enough to keep our secrets. Be independent of each other and most importantly the audience. In rehearsals we talked a lot about "receiving" the play. If a moment didn't work it was because our antennae was out. We asked what is it telling us to do?

This play looks after you if you're true to it and it can kick you really hard if you try and bend it out of shape. That's true of all the great plays.

All photos by Tim Morozzo

What does the Western, and the history behind the genre, mean to you?

I didn't know the first thing about Westerns when I started directing True West. I'd watched Back to the Future III but hadn't even seen Gone With The Wind. I guess they'd never instinctively spoken to me. It was something my grandfather was in to. I thought I ought to. I ended up watching around a hundred, I couldn't get enough.

I asked a mate who knew a bit about films, who suggested that I start with High Noon. It absolutely floored me. It was not what I expected at all. It's an intensely beautiful film. Beautifully acted by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. It has an unforgettably atmospheric song sung by Tex Ritter:

"Do not forsake me oh my darling / on this our wedding day /

Do not forsake me oh my darling /

Wait, wait along".

Haunting. Gorgeous.

I just loved the directness of the emotions and the language. The sparseness of the dialogue. The distrust of talk. The bleakness of the landscape and the banality of the deaths. After that I watched 10 a week. From the early, early westerns with Tom Mix, six episodes of "The Miracle Rider" through the great classics of John Ford "The Searchers" and "Liberty Vallance", through to Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood, Andy Warhol, Scorsese and Ang Lee.

I think I assumed these films were just brainless violent shoot ‘em ups with hackneyed plots and acting (many of them ARE by the way). I didn't expect poetry, politics, heresy, questioning, raw, raw emotion, character studies as detailed and searching as anything I’d read in Chekhov. 

I became a massive convert. I read more and more about the films and saw how America has played out its deepest anxieties through the western. Taxi Driver (a sort of reducto ad absurdum of the tenets of the Western) becomes more powerful when you've seen High Noon. You sort of know what he's going on about a bit more. But "The Searchers" is about racism, slavery and so on. "Cheyenne Autumn" is a really beautiful film about America’s race guilt. Released in the same year that Martin Luther King have his famous speech at the Washington Memorial.

Growing up in Liverpool you are aware of a great love of America and Americana. I think this is down to getting access to a rich culture that didn't talk down to you, that spoke in plain language, that you didn't need a posh accent to have access to it. It spoke of aspiration, optimism, and a better tomorrow.

How has the Western shaped American identity?

That is a massive question. There are lots of different types of Western. And they reflect different aspects of American life. American "identity" is a tricky thing to define too. But I'll give it a go.

America's a new country. A country made up of disparate cultures and ethnicities. I guess it has more trouble than most in "knowing itself". In my experience the people who talk most about who they are or what they're about are the ones with the most insecurity about those questions. The sheer amount of cultural product that is about what it is to be "American" is in itself interesting. It's interesting in terms if what it says about the idea of nationhood itself.

I'm no expert, but I think it's perhaps more useful to think of how The Western reflects America's changing idea of itself. I think it’s interesting that in Pulp Fiction and Midnight Express mainstream cinema depicted male rape. But it wasn't until much later that Brokeback Mountain (a western) an achingly romantic mainstream film depicting a gay love story was made.

Perhaps the western genre can deem something "acceptable" or "mainstream" in American culture. As the British Shakespeare attracts the politics of the day like iron filings to a magnet so perhaps does the western.

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