Sam Shepard's geographical home territory is the American south-west, where for vast swathes there are few structures to be seen, only the expanse of raw nature. His plays often occupy an analogous area, concentrating on the mesas and canyons of psychology and emotion whilst doggedly refusing to build load-bearing factual frameworks amongst them.
Fool For Love, presented at the Donmar as Ian Brown's first major production since leaving Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, is a fine example of Shepard's dramatic landscape. Ex-lovers Eddie and May's relationship is in a Beckettian continuum of nearly-ness: Eddie drives thousands of miles to May's Mojave motel room, grows wildly possessive but wriggles out of commitment at the last second, as May excoriates him incessantly but screams him back at each attempted departure. Both are visited by The Old Man, whose status is somewhere between memory and ghost; stories of their past are told and disputed, with contradictions never quite cleared up for the audience.
Behind Robin Don's impressive big-sky-and-telegraph-pole gauze, The Old Man is periodically seen sitting, drinking and pontificating; he later emerges into the room itself, never directly regarded by its inhabitants but still sharing the bottle of tequila which circulates. Gawn Grainger's Old Man combines a rumpled, low-key Harry Dean Stanton presence with the daunting self-certainty of Hal Holbrook, shattered at the end when he hears the missing pieces of Eddie and May's story for the first time. Barry Lynch is on fine, obstreperous form as Eddie, indirectly but tangibly demonstrating himself to be his father's son.
Lorraine Ashbourne has not fully got a handle on May: she deploys her considerable lung-power with precision, but both her vocal work and solo physical gestures seem that little bit studied. Eddie and May's body language together, though, is perfectly agonised: it speaks of knots of former intimacy, desire, reluctance and fear to reactivate the dormant fires. After his performances in Method and Madness's season at the Lyric Hammersmith earlier this year, it seems that Martin Marquez moulds his performances from the voice outwards; as Martin, May's current man, he once again uses an awkward, semi-articulated vocal rumble to denote a simple-minded, chronically bewildered figure.
Brown's production gets close to the heart of the play, and although it never quite achieves the Shepardian paradox of bringing the deliberately absent elements of the picture into clear focus, it is, as the saying goes, "close enough for jazz". The punter behind me on the way out was volubly complaining that he "expected better of this place"; some people are never satisfied.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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