Thursday, March 22, 2007

REVIEW: Kicking a Dead Horse (The Peacock, Dublin)

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 playwright-actor-director.

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 desserts.

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.

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