Imara Savage directs Sam Shepard

Full disclosure: I was thrilled to attend this preview night of Imara Savage’s production of Fool for Love Downstairs at Belvoir Street, not because I’m passionate about the play – I was underwhelmed by the London production in 2006 , and before that by the video of Robert Altman’s 1985 film – but because I’ve known Imara all her life and nearly half mine, and have always appreciated her fine sense of the theatrical.

The production uses the tiny space downstairs at the Belvoir to great effect: a man and a woman in a seedy motel room, with another not-quite-real older man sitting up at the edge of the audience with a guitar. It’s claustrophobic and intimate. All four actors are brilliantly cast and perform brilliantly. Instead of the rockstar glamour of Juliette Lewis or the Hollywood iconicism of Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger, the main actors, Emma Jackson and Justin Stewart Cotta, give us a May and Eddie who are worn down by life, can’t live with each other, can’t do without each other, struggle with their compulsive need for each other: there’s no celebrity charisma to confuse the issue. Terry Serio as the older man with the guitar is spot on, and Alan Flower, innocent bystander, is a perfect foil for the destructive passions of the rest.

I’ve seen Sam Shepard done badly, without a feel for the music of his language, and it just grinds on incomprehensibly. This Fool for Love isn’t one of those occasions: there’s a point where Eddie delivers a very long monologue that could bring the play to a crumbling halt, like the verbal equivalent of an explanatory flashback. As performed by John Stewart Cotta, with Alan Flower a captive audience, it’s mesmerising. I wasn’t surprised to read in the program notes that Justin Stewart Cotta is an accomplished musician.

You know how when an Australian cast does a US play, there’s often a dreadful unease about the accents,as if you can feel the gears grinding to keep them in place? There wasn’t a hint of that here, at least not to my ears.

It was a preview, and there was a technical hitch that involve the theatre filling with smoke and the smell of cordite. We had an unscheduled interval. It’s a sign of the strength of the performances that the spell wasn’t broken. This is a magnificent hour and a half of theatre.

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