Kicking A Dead Horse – September 2008


By Sam Shephard

Directed by Sam Shephard

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 13th September 2008

This was something of a disappointment. I’ve liked Sam Shepard’s work before – the Almeida did an excellent production of The Late Henry Moss in 2006 – and Stephen Rea is a very good actor, but this play just wasn’t good enough to keep me involved, never mind entertained, for all of seventy minutes.

It’s a surreal piece, dealing with the ‘death’ of the Old West. We see this through the eyes of an art critic who’s come out to the middle of nowhere to get back to his roots, only to have his horse keel over and die once they’re well out of sight of civilisation. The play isn’t exactly a monologue, as Stephen Rea’s character, Hobart Struther, speaks from at least two points of view, the optimistic one who wanted to come back, and the inner critic who’s always wise after the event. He did use different voices for these two aspects of himself, although occasionally I found they weren’t differentiated enough.

The set was excellent. At the start, there’s a blank curved back wall, and several mounds on the stage, with what looked like a plain sheet draped over them. At the very start of the play, some piano music starts up, and as the lights come on, I could see that the cloth on the stage was blue. It begins to slid back, revealing what’s under the mounds, and as I watched, I got the impression the cloth was dancing to the music. It certainly seemed to move in rhythm, and I kept my eyes on it till the last corners flicked down at the back of the stage.

Still on the stage were two mounds of earth (they could have been boulders, but as there was a big pit between them, and no other sign of the contents, I assume the mounds were that dirt), the aforementioned pit right of centre, a dead horse lying behind the pit with its back to us and its head to our left, and a saddle, saddlebags and other riding accoutrements to the left of the stage. Along the back wall were the gentle outlines of American western scenery, looking very distant.

There’s some noises and dirt flying out of the hole, and then the man himself emerges, slowly. He’s not happy with his horse, and kicks it several times through the play, each time accompanied by a drum beat which sounds slightly metallic, like the horse had a steel drum inside it. He tells us his story – art critic, made a lot of money spotting the ignored paintings in pubs and bars out west, and finally he chucks it all in to come back out west, where he was brought up, to become “Authentic” again. Trouble is, his horse dies after some oats went down the wrong way and choked him. So now he’s burying it. Only it refuses to be buried, according to him. Me, I thought he was the one with the problem.

His voices talk him into throwing his western gear into the pit before putting the horse in, including his hat, which I thought was a bit silly. Later, as he scans the horizon with his binoculars, singing a gratingly awful song, a woman glides serenely out of the pit, wearing the hat, and after standing there for a while, unnoticed, puts the hat on his head and glides back into the pit again. Don’t ask me what that was about – I haven’t a clue. She was wearing a slip and nothing else, apart from the hat. I found the song so annoying I was even considering leaving, so it had to be bad.

Finally, with the hat returned to the pit, he gets his rope round the horse’s ankles, and hauls it over onto its back. After a bit more ranting and raving amongst his various selves, he decides to rescue the hat again, and as he’s down there, the horse topples in on top of him. End of play, thank God. It was pretty obvious from a long way out what was going to happen, so stretching it out so long was pointless.

There were some good bits. I liked the set, and there were some fun lighting changes, driven by Struther himself. He mentioned it being sunset, and lo, it was sunset. Later he brought about a similarly swift change to daytime. He produced a tent with a mind of its own, and we got some laughs when it kept collapsing. Enjoyable though this was, it’s never a good sign when the props are more entertaining than the cast and dialogue. I also liked the horse well enough, and almost felt like cheering when it fell into the grave.

Stephen Rea’s accent was unusual. I thought I could hear a lot of Irish creeping back into it, but I don’t know if that was intentional. After all, the author himself directed the piece, and presumably he knew what he wanted. The delivery was so monotonous, though, that I didn’t really care; I just wanted it to be over. This was more Beckett than Shepard, and not one I’ll see again in a hurry.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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