Reviews for the Abbey Theatre
performance at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, Ireland -
March 12 to April 14, 2007
Edel Coffey, Sunday Tribune - How
Shepard and Rea tamed the wild west
Sam Shepard's new play "Kicking A Dead Horse" was
written especially for Stephen Rea, which must be one of
the highest compliments an actor can be paid, especially
by a playwright who is considered one of the best of his
generation. The world premiere took place on Thursday
night in the Peacock theatre and seemed a strangely
muted affair, despite the momentousness of the event.
The play tells the story of Hobart Struther, a wealthy
New York art dealer, who has ditched his shiny city life
in search of authenticity in the modern-day wild west.
It begins with the absurdist sense of comedy that
Shepard has become known for.
The set is covered with a sky-blue silk sheet, obscuring
oddlyshaped mounds. As the music rises, the sheet is
pulled slowly from the side of the stage to reveal
mounds of earth, a deep pit and a dead horse (which
looks very real). The audience titters.
From the pit in the centre of the stage, a spadeful of
dusty muck gets thrown out, followed by a subterranean
grunt, then another spadeful, another grunt, another
spadeful, until the spade gets thrown up and a dusty Rea
The first few minutes of the play are all physical
comedy; he gives the horse a good kick (he does this
several times throughout the play) before starting into
his monologue, which is so well-performed and
well-written it keeps the audience riveted right through
to the end.
Shepard is de-romanticising the mythology of the
American cowboy. As night falls and Struther is stranded
in the desert with his bags, a faulty tent and the rain
and lightning flashing about him, it becomes apparent
that finding authenticity through some quixotic ideal is
not as easy as it might look. Struther tells himself,
"So this is the way you wind up - not like some gallant
bushwacker but flattened out babbling in the open
Shepard mocks him even further by reminding him of the
wife or partner that Struther has clearly left behind to
go on his one-man mission to find himself.
"She'd be fixing supper for you about now, wouldn't
she?" It all starts to sound very appealing and it
perfectly lampoons the idea of city slickers trying to
find authenticity in their lives through the cowboy
There are political overtones and undertones to the
play, although they are so subtle they might not exist
at all. There are ambiguous lines that could refer to
the current political situation in America. These lines
resonate beyond the play itself, as when Struther
berates himself - "What the hell did you expect?" or
when he is finding his present predicament more
difficult than he expected, he says, "I do not
understand why I'm having so much trouble taming the
I've done this already. Haven't I already been through
Amidst all the clever humour, there is a lot being dealt
with here- the search for some 'authenticity' in life,
the loneliness and fearfulness of growing old, and the
importance of companionship, "company, some warmth".
It's hard not to look at it through an autobiographical
filter, with the character Struther and Shepard being
the same age.
Shepard has said about Rea that he is "so malleable, he
can move in so many different directions" and it is true
that Rea gives a wonderful and completely unexpected
performance as Struther, from the surprise of the voice
to the relish with which he carries out the physical
Paula Shields,The Observer -
Remains of the neigh:
Stephen Rea's Hobart Struther is talking to himself.
Stranded in the middle of nowhere in Sam Shepard's
mythic Midwest, with a dead horse for company, is an
edgy proposition for an ageing New York art dealer of
nervous disposition. Shepard's new play revisits
familiar themes: the constructs of America and the self,
the fictions we live by, individually and collectively.
Struther has left his successful East Coast life behind
in search of a more authentic experience on a trip out
West, but the death of his horse throws an equally
absurd light on this notion too.
Rea deftly inhabits the role of an older man driven to
make meaning of his existence. With comic skills to
match the mordant humour of his situation, he brings
numerous characters to life, when he isn't grappling
with a commendably realistic dead horse prop and
deadpanning the author's in-jokes at the audience.
Little wonder Shepard wrote this lyrical, mature play
with Rea in mind.
The mood darkens as the focus moves
from the personal to the political in an angry passage
that sums up the US, from the pioneers to today, in a
deconstruction of the American Dream: 'Destroyed
education. Turned our children into criminals.
Demolished art. Invaded sovereign nations. What else can
Emer O'Kelly, Sunday Independent:
Hobart Struther is a man in trouble. A successful New
York art dealer in early American paintings, he feels
himself out of touch with the reality in the art. So he
has taken himself out of his Park Avenue apartment, out
of New York, to trek as the pioneers did in the desert:
on horseback. And the horse has upped and died on him
miles from anywhere.
Sam Shepard's "Kicking a Dead Horse" opens with Hobart
digging a grave for the horse. As he digs, he converses
with himself about reality and authenticity and how its
loss numbs the soul into a comfortable, deadly
But as the monologue continues, we realise that there is
more: she is gone. Maybe his wife, maybe his mistress,
maybe both. And maybe all of this is fantasy: Hobart may
well be having the conversation from the comfort of his
armchair, his disgust at the destruction of everything
fine that he believes the United States stood for less a
grand gesture than a snoozing reminiscence in front of
the TV triggered by loneliness and fear of the passing
of time. Maybe this is a journey through death. At least
that seems to be the case when a young woman rises from
the grave to return Hobart's hat which he has thrown
The play is classic Shepard, rueful and paradoxic, and
the ending offers the blackest of comedy. In all of
that, it is highly entertaining. But clarity is missing,
and this may be because the author directs from a
position too close to his text. Are we dealing with an
elegy for the American Way? Are we dealing with a
denunciation of comfortable success? Or are we watching
a piece of surreal snook-cocking?
Stephen Rea, a longtime collaborator of Shepard, gives a
splendidly wry performance as Hobart, although he is
rather younger than the stage directions for the
character to be in his mid-60s. But the production (a
world premiere at the Peacock) suffers badly from
inadequate technical management: the dead horse is
unconvincing, and extreme suspension of disbelief is
required when it finally falls across its grave, failing
dismally to achieve what the action has been leading up
Fergal O'Brien (Bloomberg.com) -
Sam Shepard Does Beckett, U.S.-Style, and the Hero's a
Sam Shepard is premiering his new
play, "Kicking a Dead Horse,'" in Dublin. It's an
entirely suitable decision considering how much the work
owes to Beckett.
From the solitary character in a desolate landscape to
the sense of failure and the moments of absurdity, the
spirit of Beckett hangs over the production. Given the
emphasis on hopelessness, from the title to the closing
moments, it's fitting.
Stephen Rea is Hobart Struther, a New York art dealer
who pillaged the American West for paintings that he
sold on at inflated prices. But "things come back to
haunt you," he says, now stuck in that mythical West
after his horse dies.
Hobart's story, told as he tries to bury the horse in a
hole that's too small, is one of failure, loneliness and
running out of time. Rea, moving from anger to despair,
with some comical head turns and farcical attacks on the
dead equine in between, gives a compelling performance.
The Northern Ireland-born actor, for whom Shepard wrote
the role, has pushed the dour manner that normally
dominates his film work to the background, bringing a
subtle energy to his character, a man who wishes he was
a cowboy. (He has the spurs and the hat.)
A storm and his failure to raise a tent prompt Struther
to say: "I do not understand why I am having so much
trouble taming the wild." It could just as easily be
about Shepard, who has had the cowboy tag imposed on him
since early in his career, and we may assume an element
of autobiography in Struther's predicament.
The only other character, and the weakest element in the
play, is a young woman (Joanne Crawford) who appears
midway through the narrative, unseen by Struthers, and
returns his hat to him from the grave. Her meaning is
unclear, and it's a distracting and meaningless role. A
pity, because almost everything else, from Shepard's
direction to Brien Vahey's set, is hard to fault.
The play moves from the personal to the political in a
potted and damning history of the U.S. by Struther. As
with much I've read, listened to or watched this year,
touching on politics seems always to lead to one issue,
U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq war.
So, after Arcade Fire drew on images of holy wars in
"Neon Bible," and Iain Banks used "The Steep Approach to
Garbadale" to rant about the "great American people" for
"electing idiots," we have Shepard describing a country
that's gone from killing buffalo to destroying education
and invading sovereign nations.
The interesting thing is that Shepard doesn't push the
issue. It's just one element in a litany of the nation's
What you're left with is the feeling that the bad guys
are winning. Struther/Shepard is up against too many
things. And that's depressing, isn't it? Nobody wants
the cowboy to quit.
John Murray Brown, The Financial Times -
American angst in a desert landscape:
As the curtain rises on Sam Shepard's new play, another
gritty cowboy drama at first seems in prospect. Many of
his best known works have been set in a neon-lit world
of trailer-trash, dingy diners and strong men with
strong emotions - characters and props deployed to
explain what he sees as the sickness of modern America.
Shepard, who is also an accomplished stage and film
actor, is a giant of modern American theatre. From the
1960s along with writers such as Edward Albee, he
pioneered a new language, poetic yet rooted in the
landscape of the West - the True West, as the ironic
title of his best-known play describes it.
But "Kicking a Dead Horse", which was given its world
premiere on Thursday at Dublin's Peacock Theatre, feels
different. First the whimsical title. Non-American
audiences might grasp the drift more easily if "kicking"
were replaced by "flogging". Is this Shepard, in self
referential mode, responding to criticism for
"over-mining" his favourite settings of outback angst?
But the play's title is not just metaphorical, it is, as
we quickly discover, literal and real. This latest
Shepard work, which the writer directs himself, owes as
much to Samuel Beckett - the Irish playwright who is one
of his acknowledged influences - and to European
expressionist theatre as to the American road movie.
The setting is a desert landscape somewhere in the
American West. A dead horse takes up the centre of the
stage. A man is heard digging in a large pit nearby.
This looks and feels more like Godot than Hamlet.
Hobart Struther, played by Stephen Rea - for whom the
play was written and to whom it is dedicated - is not a
real cowboy as becomes apparent when rummaging through
his saddle bag he comes across his dental floss and his
Hobart is a businessman roughing it in the prairie for a
few days, in search of what he self-consciously calls
"authenticity". This is a key word in the play, repeated
several times and is an expression of Shepard's own
search for an authentic language and idiom to describe
Hobart, like Shepard, is a man in his 60s. Unlike the
still boyish playwright, Hobart is starting to feel his
age. He has been through some sort of mental breakdown.
His marriage is under strain. He is someone once
familiar with working horses, but now a celebrated art
dealer in New York.
He collects what he calls "masterful western murals
nobody could recognise any more through the piled-up
years of grime, tobacco juice and bar-room brawl blood".
But now those "masterpieces" have become his "demons
trapping me in a life I wasn't meant for".
Hobart's commercial success mirrors the success of those
early pioneers, who like him, got rich plundering the
wilderness of the West. He has few illusions that this
was a bloody conquest. But as he recalls their exploits,
he also puzzles over the story of one pioneer who, not
content with a single suicide bullet, shot himself with
two pistols one to the head and one to the stomach.
"What was he thinking? To wind up like that after the
greatest expedition in the history of . . . Maybe he
Shepard's last play, "The God of Hell" in 2004, was
poorly received by the critics, some dismissing it as
little more than a vehicle for a blunt-edged attack on
the Bush regime. It is tempting to see a political
impulse in this latest work too - a plea that the US
administration might reach some point of self knowledge
and recognise it is "kicking a dead horse" in Iraq.
There are several references that seem to link the
events in this remote desert badlands with another
desert country across the Blue Atlantic where Americans
are making a mess of things.
At one point Hobart talksof the early pioneers "invading
sovereign nations" by which he means the Indian tribes,
but Shepard may also be making an allusion to Iraq.
Yet just as the horse will not fit into the pit that
Hobart has dug for it, Shepard may also be warning the
audience against attempting to cast his message about
America and its history and landscape directly in the
context of the bloody events of Iraq.
Helen Boylan, Sunday Business
The various complex cowboys that have
peopled Sam Shepard’s plays have turned the abstract
fantasy of the Wild West on its head, making a mockery
of the idea that authenticity might be found beyond the
In his latest play Kicking a Dead Horse, a one-man show
receiving its world premiere at the Abbey Theatre,
Shepard attempts a similar process of demystification.
However, Hobart Struther (played by Stephen Rea) is an
ill-conceived cowboy character, and his doomed quest for
authenticity fails to find the ring of truth.
Struther is a cowboy-turned-art dealer who has returned
to the desert, ‘‘hankering after a sense of being in his
His horse has just died, and in the empty endless desert
landscape Struther is forced to confront the harsh
physical reality of cowboy life and the artificiality of
his cowboy dreams.
Despite self-conscious lighting cues and theatrical
jokes addressed directly to the audience, the monologue
form of the play is distinctly untheatrical.
The dramaturgical device of an alter-ego interrogating
the stranded Struther is clunky and unclear, while the
spontaneous appearance of a scantily clad woman with a
rescued cowboy hat is indulgent.
Meanwhile, the stunning visual aspect of Brien Vahey’s
tilted set (complete with life-size dead horse sculpted
by Padraig McGoran and John O’Connor) fails to
compensate for a stage scenario entirely lacking in
Rea, returning to the Irish stage after ten years, still
holds a commanding stage presence, his frozen hangdog
expression and his fixed sad eyes battling against the
agitated physicality of his lean body.
Yet while Rea, as Struther, sets out to save himself,
Rea’s performance cannot save the play. As Struther
striving to find his voice, Rea is utterly convincing,
but Shepard’s play, unfortunately, gives him nothing to
While making some timely, if unoriginal, observations
about America’s historical legacy (contained in a single
short speech lamenting the American dream of manifest
destiny), the 70-minute piece is so underwritten that it
seems more like a fragment from Shepard’s famous Motel
Chronicles than a play.
As the latest theatrical offering from one of America’s
greatest living playwrights, Kicking a Dead Horse is a
Shepard is not so much kicking a dead horse as milking
the illusion of America’s scared cultural cow for all
Despite the celebrity appearance in this play, the one
star rating below goes to the horse.
Karen Fricker, Variety:
Sam Shepard's first new play since
2004, "Kicking a Dead Horse," is altogether a strange beast. And
that's not just the dead horse onstage. Some excellent deadpan
humor, delivered brilliantly by a refreshingly antic Stephen Rea;
autobiographical material that seems a halfhearted attempt on
Shepard's part to unload old creative baggage; and the incongruous
setting of Ireland's National Theater all add up to an evening that
feels like a somewhat misfired in-joke.
The lights come up on a circular
stage with two mounds of dirt, a rectangular hole, a pile of riding
tackle, and -- yup -- a very real-looking life-size dead horse. A
man emerges out of the hole, carrying a shovel. "Fucking horse.
Goddamn," he says to the audience, and then kicks the dead horse.
We are in broad parodic territory
here; and initially Rea gets the tone just right. He is Hobart
Struther, a New York art dealer who headed out on a desert walkabout
to rediscover his "authenticity," only to have his horse keel over.
Homage is clearly being paid to Samuel Beckett at his most absurdly
comic, as Hobart tries and fails repeatedly to tip the horse into
the too-small grave.
The key artist Shepard is glossing
here, however, is himself. Hobart made his fortune reselling
paintings of the American West at a massive markup. "What I couldn't
see was how those old masterpieces would become like demons,
trapping me in a life I wasn't meant for," he says self-pityingly.
This and other references (to New
York, where Shepard now sometimes lives, and his wife's "golden
hair") make clear that Shepard is reflecting on his own career and
life, seeming to renounce his past creative patterns by sending them
up. But by invoking all his familiar themes -- the American West,
dreams of escape, tourism, violence -- Shepard re-inscribes them in
his work even as he claims to disavow them.
On one level, he knowingly nods to
what he's doing by making the classic Shepardian battle between self
and other an internal one: Hobart bickers constantly with himself,
another challenge Rea carries off with great skill (if with an
overly mobile pan-American accent).
But the legend simply protests too
much: if Shepard really wanted to "make a clean break" from the
dead-horse weight that is his cowboy-playwright image, then why
write another cowboy play? The entire effort is steeped in
solipsism, into which it starts to disappear.
The first sign that things are
going wrong is the brief appearance of a pretty young woman in a
short slip who gives Hobart back his discarded Stetson -- a possible
nod to feminist critiques of the treatment of women characters in
his plays. But this is a self-reflexive gag too far -- you can't
objectify women and pretend not to at the same time (something the
creative team may have begun to realize in the run up to production,
given that the printed playscript says the woman is meant to be
naked.) And when Hobart collapses on the horse's body, sobbing, his
crisis now seems to be intended seriously, a tonal about-face that
prompts the only bum note of Rea's performance.
This play is part of an ongoing
engagement with Shepard's work that saw a fine revival of "True
West" last year. But Ireland is an odd context for such a
self-referential work; it's unlikely that audiences will have the
knowledge required to fully grasp its apparently intended ironies.
Colin Murphy, Irish Independent -
Shepard is certainly not flogging a dead horse:
THE US is kicking a dead horse in
Iraq, the outcome of a misconceived adventure that was
supposed to be about taming the wild.
This could be what the renowned American playwright, Sam
Shepard, is talking about in his enigmatic new play,
'Kicking A Dead Horse', which was written for the Abbey.
Stephen Rea plays Hobart Struther, a beaten-down
American who has fled his bourgeois Park Avenue
art-dealing life for a long trek across the prairies, in
search of his former self.
A day into his trek, his horse keels over, and this is
how we encounter Hobart: stuck in the wilderness,
kicking his dead horse. (The horse is pretty lifelike,
and the desert setting is elegantly captured by Brien
Vahey's set and John Comiskey's lighting.)
Stephen Rea plays Hobart as a weary refugee from
American materialism, a man who, as he found his
fortune, lost his sense of himself. He is more pathetic
than tragic, and Rea ennobles him with a sense of
yearning and a restless energy that is captivating.
Hobart's task is to bury his horse, but he is defeated
by the size and awkwardness of the stiffened corpse,
which he can't fit into the grave he has dug. The
writing is razor sharp.
There are no polemics: these themes are treated
elliptically, in Hobart's lonesome ruminations. A witty
ending leaves an appreciative audience asking each
other, 'what did it mean?'
Luke Clancy, theloy.com:
Cowboys have often been recruited to
help American look at itself, its dreams, drives and
desires. Even when cooked up by writers with no
experience of the Wild West – such as Zane Grey, the New
York orthodontist turned author of Western stories – the
cowboys provide a powerful image of a restless, brave,
manly nation, ready to make the wilderness safe for
industrial meat production.
That little gap between the cowboy myth and those who
foster it crops up again in Sam Shepard's latest, an
uncanny, one-handed, modern-day Western, having its
world premier here, in a production directed by the
Hobart Struther (Stephen Rea) finds himself alone in the
desert with no way out but to walk. His horse has up and
died, and Hobart feels honour bound to bury it. As he
digs the pit, he raves at his misfortune and describes –
addressing the audience directly – how manifest destiny
brought him here.
And while the short terms causes of his predicament
relate to an accidentally-snorted muzzle-full of oats,
that is really only part of a grander crisis of in
American self-love, for which Struther is just a symbol.
But no matter how keenly Shepherd is feeling the decline
and fall of the US of A (hints about Iraq and Bushism
abound) it isn't easy to have much sympathy. Struther,
who turns out to be a New York art dealer specialising
in Western Art, has plundered everything he touched,
until you can't help feeling that it is not the workings
of existential absurdity that has left him lost,
friendless and isolated; he's simply getting his just
More than usual here, Shepard seems to be writing in the
shadow of Samuel Beckett, whose surreal stages the set
here (designed by Brien Vahey and lit by John Comiskey)
recall. Even the play's title, acted out with gusto by
Rea repeatedly, has a Beckettian futility to it. Rea's
performance – irascible, raggedy, with a fine dust of
humour, but undeniably un-cowboyish – adds a final twist
to this knotty exploration of inauthenticity, even if
the actor's North of Ireland accent is expertly buried
beneath a soft Western drone.
|Reviews for the
Almeida Performance - London, England - September 5-20,
Sarah Hemming, Financial Times:
There is a flurry of horse activity on the London stage
at the moment. While the National Theatre’s revival of
"War Horse" brings back those uncannily lifelike
puppets, Sam Shepard’s new play at the Almeida also
features a life-size equine quadruped. But this noble
steed spends the play with his legs in the air, having
dropped dead before the action starts. His demise has
left his rider stranded in America’s badlands and
saddled with the unenviable task of burying the corpse.
It is a wonderful, tragicomic scenario, ripe with
potential. But unfortunately the play is strangely inert
– in spite of a marvellous performance from Stephen Rea
in Shepard’s own production (first seen at Dublin’s
Rea plays Hobart Struther, an art dealer rich from
selling paintings of the American West. Tired of his
futile life, he has set out on a “quest for
authenticity”, back to the landscapes of those images.
He has packed beans, water, even dental floss. But he
reckoned without his horse’s digestive system. He begins
the play shovelling dirt and goes on to chastise himself
for his folly, between strenuous efforts to shove the
beast into its grave.
The stark scenario and deliberate theatricality of the
piece recall Beckett, and the disconsolate Struther,
arguing with his alter ego and wrestling comically with
his physical circumstances, could be a distant relative
of Beckett’s characters. So too the metaphysical
implications of the play. But it also extends, and
mischievously comments on, Shepard’s own preoccupations
with the American West, with restlessness, authenticity
and masculinity. And Struther’s plight becomes symbolic
of contemporary America, caught in an uneasy
relationship with the past and with its image of itself.
It offers immense riches, then, yet in execution it
seems curiously contrived. What could be meaningful
symbolism – Struther burying his cowboy hat – seems
heavy-handed, and Struther as a character is
overburdened with significance. There is some wonderful
writing: tough, poetic and funny. And Rea is a joy, his
furrowed face as melancholy as that of a dog on a diet,
his gangly frame contorting itself as he wrestles with
his dead companion. But still the play, like the horse,
proves obstinately unmoving.
Nicholas de Jongh, Evening
It should come as no great surprise that Sam
Shepard, whose plays often describe how the great
American dream has given way to all manner of nightmare,
should now be moving into Samuel Beckett territory.
I suspect this broody, 70-minute solo piece, whose
impact is blunted by the pervading glumness of Stephen
Rea’s performance, enjoys spiritual and thematic links
with Beckett’s masterpiece, Happy Days. In that
extraordinary, virtual monologue, with its heroine,
Winnie, eventually trapped up to her neck in sand, you
sense that not only one life but perhaps the whole world
is drawing to a close.
Shepard’s "Kicking a Dead Horse", recently premiered in
Dublin and just seen in New York, does not go that far
but the reverberating Beckettian echoes and affinities
proliferate. Designer Brien Vahey summons up wild west
prairie badlands, where nothing grows but silence.
Sheets are whipped away from undulating mounds to reveal
a life-like but very dead horse, lying on its side.
Then Stephen’s Rea’s Hobart Struther, a 65‑year-old art
dealer in a Stetson, stranded in nowhere’s midst, hauls
himself out of a pit, from which he has been shoveling
earth and into which he is weirdly obsessed that his
horse should be tipped. Realism’s boundaries are now set
to be breached.
Talking in rather Beckettian style to himself, as if
that self was another person, Hobart scans the empty
horizon through his binoculars and launches himself on a
reminiscent, stream of self-consciousness. He has left
his wife. From his Park Avenue he has hurled invaluable
works of art, discovered in saloons and barns.He is
crazily intent upon this voyage of self‑discovery, or
“authenticity” as he puts it, a task that involves
facing up to a lifetime’s regrets.
Rea, in Shepard’s muted but ultimately romantic
production, relishes Hobart’s jovial cynicism, his
emphatic bravado, his struggles to move the horse to its
grave. The limited, dramatic tension, though, is
dependent on a strong sub-textual sense that Hobart
becomes increasingly possessed by fear, grief and
alienation, as he faces up to “me and myself”.It is
these moods that an obstinately phlegmatic Rea quite
fails to evoke. John Comiskey’s atmospheric lighting
design injects flickers of excitement into a Shepard
play that for once fails to grapple with the personal
and public issues it raises.
Sam Marlowe, The Times:
The metaphorical horse into which Sam Shepard puts the
boot in his latest play may not be dead yet, but it’s
certainly seen some miles. This 70-minute work, written
for the actor Stephen Rea and first performed at the
Abbey Theatre in Dublin last year, is steeped in
American mythology and set in familiar Shepard
territory, the West. Shepard seems at times to be
railing against the very imagery with which he has
become so strongly associated — but that internal debate
makes the play almost as arid as the landscape it
Rea is Hobart Struther, a New York art dealer who has
strapped on his spurs, donned his stetson and ventured
into the badlands in search of the “authenticity”
missing from his antiseptic, air-conditioned city life.
But his quest has gone awry — his horse, having choked
on its oats, has abruptly died. Two mounds of earth, a
large hole, and the dead beast: that, in Shepard’s own
production, is the scene that greets us once the blue
silk that covers the stage is whisked away. The only
initial sign of Rea’s Hobart is the shovelfuls of dirt
flying from the hole in which he plans to bury the hefty
The scene is faintly reminiscent of Hamlet but more
forcefully Beckettian, as are Hobart’s arguments with
his own alter ego — whom he voices in a prissy, nasal
whine — which recall the bickering of Hamm and Clov or
Didi and Gogo. Yet Shepard’s writing never achieves
poignant, poetic transcendence. Instead we get a banal
account of Hobart’s failed marriage, or a rant about
America’s historical and contemporary political
failings. Racism, cultural vandalism, bellicose foreign
policy — it’s all crammed into one clumsy climactic
The play’s gestural language can be equally
heavy-handed, as when Hobart flings his cowboy gear into
the horse’s grave in a rejection of degraded archetype.
Odd, vivid moments stir the imagination: remembering how
he made a killing flogging paintings he found hanging
unremarked in saloon bars, Hobart imagines all those
Wild West beasts and guns captured in oils mutinously
hemming him in, “nostrils flaring, Colt revolvers
And Rea’s performance is typically compelling, his long,
craggy face and unhappy eyes as tragi-comic as a
clown’s, his rangy body bending with slapstick strain as
he battles to shift that mountain of horseflesh. But
he’s hampered by characterisation that lacks texture and
definition — though not so severely as Joanne Crawford,
who makes a brief, wordless appearance as unnamed Young
Woman wearing a flimsy slip and Hobart’s jettisoned hat.
What she represents is unclear, but she is the most
conspicuous contrivance in a piece that places the
well-worn under a burning sun and still winds up feeling
Nick Curtis, Evening Standard - Sam Shepard rides
New plays by Sam Shepard still have an enticing cachet,
so this British premiere — first seen at the Abbey
Theatre, Dublin, and then in New York — is something of
a coup for the Almeida, not least because Shepard
himself occupies the director’s chair.
"Kicking a Dead Horse" stars that fine, hangdog actor
Stephen Rea as Manhattan art dealer Hobart Struther who,
tired of selling romantic pictures of the American West
at a huge mark-up, has embarked on a horseback journey
of self-discovery in the desert. Unfortunately, his
horse dies, and the play sees Struther discussing his
life as he tries and repeatedly fails to tip its huge
corpse into a too-small grave. Symbolism, anyone?
Critics of the American production noted the debt that
this blackly comic, Sisyphean image owed to Samuel
Beckett. Yet it also represents a continuation of the
author’s own preoccupations, and possibly a comment upon
Shepard’s work is riddled with cowboy imagery and often
concerned with “authenticity” and the ways in which
American reality — especially American masculinity —
falls short of its abiding myths. Like the brothers in
"True West", and the similar siblings in "The Late Henry
Moss" — the last Shepard play premiered at the Almeida,
in 2006 — Hobart is torn between trying to dig the truth
out about himself, or simply bury it. Here, there is
even a recurrence of that other Shepard staple, the
sultry woman in a slip familiar from works like "Fool
The title of "Kicking a Dead Horse", though, may have
more personal relevance for Shepard. Does he feel that
he, like America, is burdened by myth? Is he tired of
kicking over the same old themes, again and again? Does
he feel that nobody is listening to his diagnoses of
American sickness? There are just 16 performances at the
Almeida to give us a chance to find out.
Susannah Clapp, The Observer:
"Kicking A Dead Horse" is American writing at its
posturing cowboy worst: Beckett in a stetson. This Abbey
Theatre production of Sam Shepard's play, written for
Stephen Rea, features a Manhattan art dealer who, having
chucked his canvases out of the window, decides to head
for the Badlands so that he can bray about Authenticity.
His horse (and who can blame him?) pops his horseshoes,
and spends the evening with his plastic-looking hoofs in
the air. A girl in a mini-dress comes up from a fissure
to simper. All Rea has to do is grumble. He does so with
lovely, lugubrious confidentiality, but it's impossible
to make these speeches interesting. Talk about flogging
a supine equine.
Michael Billington, The Guardian:
Sam Shepard's characters constantly dream of a vanished
American West; and the process reaches its terminal
fulfilment in this Beckettian monologue about a man and
his dead horse marooned in what I take to be Montana.
Superbly performed by Stephen Rea, the piece may not
tell us anything radically new about Shepard, but it
feels like the end of a lifetime's journey.
Rea plays Hobart Struther: a Park Avenue art-dealer who
has abandoned career and family to return to his native
soil in a doomed quest for "authenticity". Equipped with
tent and provisions, he finds his mission sabotaged by
the death of his horse. So, having dug a hole in which
to bury the animal, Hobart dwells on the futility of his
existence. Having become rich through looting saloons of
Remington and Russell paintings, he has lived to see the
myth of the old West turned into a museum artefact. And
in attempting to return to his roots, he falls
inexorably into a void.
We have been here before in Shepard's plays and there is
something a little too sedulously Beckettian about such
comic business as Hobart's struggles with a collapsing
tent. I was also puzzled by the emergence of a silent
young woman from the horse's prospective grave.
But the piece is filled with the indefinable poetry of
loss, and with the sense that Hobart's personal
corruption mirrors that of America itself. In a moving
speech, Hobart recalls how the taming of the West was
only achieved through the destruction of indigenous
cultures and the transformation of the natural
The chief pleasure, however, lies in Rea's performance.
What he captures supremely is the character's mix of the
elegiac and the absurd. There is something wanly heroic
about his determination to bury his infuriating horse,
or about the way he gazes wistfully at his cowboy hat
before casting it into the grave. Yet, as he scuttles
about like Clov in "Endgame", or engages in endless
dialogues with his sceptical alter ego, Rea richly
conveys the ridiculousness of trying to recapture a lost
Written for Rea and Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Shepard's
self-directed monologue may sometimes feel like a
summation of his complex feelings, mixing yearning and
rage, about the American West. But the intensity of the
performance prevents you feeling that a dead horse,
while being kicked, is simultaneously being flogged.
Rhonda Koenig, The Independent:
Is he alone and unobserved? You bet. Hobart Struther is
in the American desert, digging a grave for the title
animal, with only the wind and rocks for company. Yet,
despite his need to conserve water and energy, Hobart
not only digs a huge hole but spends 80 minutes loudly
reminiscing, worrying, raging, and regretting. Since he
was created by Sam Shepard (who also directed) and is
embodied by Stephen Rea (for whom the play was written),
Hobart has a fair-sized claim on our attention. But it
does not take long before we realise that he could have
been originated by any number of angry old men,
lamenting their lost youth and strength as well as
America's and conflating the two.
Hobart's labour is intensified by the literary burden he
bears. His loneliness, his clowning, and his hole evoke
Beckett, but the Irish playwright's influence is at
least equalled by those of American novelists. While his
name evokes Lambert Strether, the unworldly middle-aged
man sent east by Henry James to grow up in The
Ambassadors, Hobart's situation – the result of a quest
for "authenticity" – brings to mind that of numberless
fictional Americans whose search for truth is stopped by
a bullet or worse.
Hobart has fled New York, leaving behind a wife who was
once "beyond authentic", but with whom he has long since
settled into a routine. The self-hatred of this former
cowhand has become so intense that he has been throwing
"masterful" million-dollar paintings out of the window
on to Park Avenue. So Hobart returns to the West, where
he began his career in art by cozening yokels out of
unregarded treasures, and broods on his and America's
Banal and inflated though this is, Rea attacks it with
soul and skill. His voice, dry and pinched, cautiously
plays out the reins of his desperation, then harshly
yanks them back. But he is forever battling against the
perfunctory and self-pitying quality of the material.
Though some may interpret the final catastrophe as a
demonstration that even good, idealistic Americans are
doomed, Hobart's fate suggests more strongly an extreme
expression of the desire to retreat, sulking, and
pretend that one has died, or the world has. The last
action of Shepard's play may create an almighty bang,
but emotionally and philosophically his play ends with a
Charles Spencer, The Telegraph:
In real time, this new play from the American dramatist
Sam Shepard lasts only 70 minutes, but it feels
immeasurably longer than that. Indeed, I began to wonder
whether I'd get out of the theatre alive or succumb to
death by chronic tedium. Shepard, revered by some as a
great chronicler of the dark side of the American dream,
though he has more often struck me as a glib and
slapdash writer, here appears to be offering a summary
of, and perhaps a valediction to, his life's work.
Yet again we are in the dramatist's beloved American
West, that mythic terrain where men were men, and life
was hard and pure and simple. Our hero, Hobart Struther,
in his sixties like Shepard, has made a fortune
collecting paintings of the Wild West, raiding "every
damn saloon, barn and attic west of the Missouri" to
pick up old cowboy pictures on the cheap before selling
them at a tidy profit. Living in luxury on New York's
Park Avenue with his wife, however, he has felt a
gathering discontent, and an urge to get back to his
roots and rediscover the "authenticity" of life in the
wild, one man and his horse, and the great wilderness.
The only trouble is that on his first day out, his
four-legged friend has died on him, and in Brien Vahey's
design, a strikingly realistic and undoubtedly deceased
equine quadruped dominates the stage.
In an interminable but not especially illuminating
monologue, Stephen Rea, who has a face rather like a
placid horse himself, kicks his defunct mount, argues
with himself, indulges in some predictable liberal guilt
about what the Americans have done to their own country
and other sovereign nations, and attempts to drag the
dead beast into the grave he has dug for him. The
impression is of a man who no longer feels a part of his
As our hero surveys the distant horizon and the light
suddenly changes at the flick of a switch, the show
often feels like Beckett's Happy Days with a sex change
and an American accent. But as it becomes clear that our
hero isn't going to get much further than his dead
horse, one realises that though Shepard may share some
of Beckett's bleakness, he has none of the Irish
writer's poetry and precious little of his wit.
Rea, by turns puzzled, frustrated and panicky, gives an
efficient performance in Shepard's own production, first
staged by Dublin's Gate Theatre. But this is acting that
relies on technical skill rather than the prompting of
the heart, and it left me entirely unmoved. Worse still,
the constant suspicion that one is watching an allegory
about America, and indeed Shepard's own career, with its
frequent plundering of American myths, makes the whole
piece seem punishingly contrived.
Never mind the horse, it's this dead play that deserves