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A CurtainUp London Review
The Late Henry Moss
The play itself has been edited down since its first outing in San Francisco five years ago. Judging by my colleague's impression of its otiose length Off-Broadway, this shortened version is an immense improvement. The Late Henry Moss has in fact made the Atlantic Crossing favourably, with its germane significance to universal societies.
Although based on a 1931 short story by Frank O'Connor, Shepard has interwoven a semi-autobiographical streak with the murkily pernicious influence of World War Two. For the men involved, a guilty, inscrutable past looms over the rest of their lives. The anonymous bloodshed perpetrated in warfare leads to an elusive sense of culpability, unintelligible trauma and domestic violence. For the next generation, there are sons who lack adequate father figures and seek their own male identity within a vacuum of role models.
The design reflects the family's stagnant dysfunction and lack of social integration. This pretty filthy domestic scene portrays a New Mexican bungalow cluttered with junk and signs of decay. All is redolent of a deteriorated home: streaks of rust run down the fridge and sink, mess is crammed under the bed, and dirty clothes hang across a line.
The eponymous Henry who inhabited this house is played by a suitably grime-encrusted Trevor Cooper. He is cantankerous and irascible, which covers a certain emptiness. Cooper's performance is powerfully engrossing for a character who would seem to be thoroughly unsympathetic.
Brendan Coyle, who had proved how well he could do Sam Shepard in the National Theatre's recent Buried Child, plays Henry's eldest son, the estranged Earl. Coyle's understated expertise is perfectly suited to these mysteriously ambivalent figures and his Earl exudes a laconic geniality which covers an underlying, perhaps menacing, intensity. Earl's brother Ray (Andrew Lincoln) is more obviously scarred by their dark family past. Ray is edgy, unpredictably aggressive and engages in inexplicable, sinister power games reminiscent of Pinter's characters.
This fragmented family of liminal identities are joined by the great comic part of Taxi (Jason Watkins), a hapless, voluble bystander who, by virtue of being a local cab-driver, gets drawn into the shadowy scenario of Henry's death. Also, Flaminia Cinque engagingly plays the beautiful, taunting and ultimately insightful Conchalla, who is "as sharp as jailhouse coffee".
This production successfully brings out the primal element in Sam Shepard's work, which is strongly evocative of Greek tragedy. Like Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, fate is internalised. The perpetuating cycle of interfamilial violence is evidence of psychological inheritance instead of divine fate. With onstage analepses, this play, which is so much about the influence of the past on the present, has a nicely interwoven texture. Earl and Ray's behaviour is conditioned by their father's conduct and a guilty, unreconciled past. The result is a moving piece with tragic stature yet gritty humanity.
To read the review of the play when it premiered at New York's Signature Theater go here
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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