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THEATRE REVIEW: August: Osage County, National Theatre

Tracy Letts’ masterpiece comes in at almost 4 hours and it is hard to see how it could be made any shorter, such is the scope and ambition of this play.
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It is hard for us to imagine just how different the US really is. Until we go there we think of it as a bigger and not necessarily better version of Britain. They speak English – with funny words for pavement and courgette – and much is made of our shared values, heritage, willingness to go to war and so on. We like to think of America as a sort of second home: familiar but far away and without the tiresome inconvenience of our nearer neighbours’ unwillingness to indulge our chronic inability to learn their loathsome Latin languages.

For most people the comfortable illusion of the ‘special relationship’ lasts about as long as it takes to clear US customs: America is another country, they do things differently there and they don’t care about us at all. The way things are going with the pound it looks like those weekend shopping trips to New York will soon be a pleasure merely of memory. You could always use the worthless sterling you save on the airfare to buy a ticket for Steppenwolf’s multi-award winning August: Osage County at the National Theatre.

Tracy Letts’ masterpiece comes in at almost 4 hours and it is hard to see how it could be made any shorter, such is the scope and ambition of this play. August is the sort of play John Steinbeck and Anton Chekhov might have co-written if they were alive in the 21st century. It is a domestic epic full of pathos and despair, drama and revelation, discord and redemption as the 3 very different Weston sisters try to come to terms with the toxic fallout in their extended Oklahoma family resulting from their father’s suicide.

Barbara (Amy Morton), the eldest, struggles to hold onto her husband and daughter while dealing with the expectations of her younger sisters that she will fill the void left by their dead father and drug-addled mother. Ivy (Sally Murphy), the middle child, is rushing headlong into a fool’s paradise with her skirt chasing fiancée Steve (Gary Cole). Karen (Mariann Mayberry), the youngest, has the hardest row to hoe: family secrets will crush her slim chance for happiness.

The Lyttleton is dominated by a huge three storey cross section set of the Weston’s Oklahoma home which allows inactive characters to remain visible onstage and greatly contributes to the authentic family atmosphere. The costumes and cultural references feel unfamiliar to us: the Royal National Theatre is a long way from “60 miles west of Tulsa”.

Anyone who has ever attended a wake or fallen out with relatives on Christmas Day will be able to attest to the effortless ability of our nearest and dearest to poke us where it hurts. Much of the humour in the play comes from the appalling truths the characters inflict on each other and its triumph is that, no matter how bad it gets, you always believe they still love each other.

Blood is thicker than water: even on the American plains

David Trennery
About the Author
David Trennery is a free-lance writer.
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