With only a dead horse and his own conscience for company, Stephen Rea muses on life and the wild West in Sam Shepard’s monologue, produced by the Abbey Theatre Dublin, which opened at the Almeida last night.
Rea does a lot of kicking a dead horse in Shepard’s 70-minute play, which was written especially for the actor and is directed by the playwright. Rea is Hobart Struther, a New York art dealer and wannabe cowboy who finds himself marooned somewhere in the American badlands after his quest for self-discovery and ‘authenticity’ – a solo camping trip – comes to an abrupt halt when his horse chokes on some oats and drops down dead.
So we meet him, struggling to dig a grave for his unfortunate steed, which lies on its side on the ground nearby. In between attempts to drag the weighty animal into its final resting place, Struther, in conversation with his own alter-ego, paints a portrait of a man who has lost the meaning of his own life. With his kids flown from the nest and his fortune long-ago secured in a manner he now derides, Struther is unenthused by the years of old age that await, and thinks wistfully of his freer, less cynical years in the once wild West, which he helped to plunder by selling the paintings that hung in saloon bars. An unhappy childhood and a marriage that has lost its shine also suggest the path that has led him to be marooned between the desert and the city, not quite feeling at home in either.
With the slightly bizarre exception of a negligee-clad girl wordlessly emerging from the horse’s grave, Rea is alone onstage for the duration, and has the difficult task of acting two characters in one; as the play progresses, Struther’s alter-ego torments and goads him to the point of near-madness. It is a kind of sneering self-destruction that leads him to fling his brand new hat – which would surely be essential under a scorching desert sun – into the grave below.
Brien Vahey’s set is a barren desert landscape, beautifully lit by John Cormiskey, which provides the perfect setting to contemplate life. Unfortunately, for Struther, his fatalistic musings lead him to one inevitable, and fittingly bizarre, conclusion. He will kick his horse – both physically and metaphorically – no more.