Now, in a search for authenticity, a return to his moments of part-time genuine contact with his own landscapes, he has set off across the flatlands and come to a halt. The horse – huge, brown, with a black mane – lies on its side, heavy and reproachful. When Hobart kicks the animal, which is often, dust rises and an echo reverberates for a second or two.
Near the end, a young woman (Joanne Crawford) comes out of the grave like an apparition – the script suggests she should be naked save for the cowboy hat she places on Hobart’s head while he carries on singing, but she isn’t – a vision of worldly flesh now subsumed in the history of the Wild West and the civilisation of America.
The whole eighty-minute monodrama is a distillation of everything Shepard has written, and in Stephen Rea – who worked closely with Shepard during the playwright’s London period thirty years ago – he has the perfect interpreter: Rea is wry, comic, visionary and confidential all at once, carrying a lifetime’s experience into a state of national enquiry. It is a sheer pleasure to see this marvellous actor on the stage again.
Hobart for Shepard is like Winnie for Beckett in Happy Days, surrounded by mounds of rock, a depopulated horizon, his own dreams and a sudden intimation of his ambiguous personal significance. He struggles with his tent just as Winnie toys with her parasol, and he suddenly launches into a ferocious resume of what’s been achieved: top soil ripped off, rivers damned up, education destroyed, art demolished, nations invaded.
Shepard himself directs an Abbey Theatre production that has arrived for a brief Almeida season after playing in Dublin and New York. The design is by Brien Vahey, lighting by John Comiskey, and the team of horse-makers – after Equus and War Horse, the big beast stands, or rather slumps, in splendidly immobile comparison – led by sculptors Padraig McGoran and John O’Connor at the Abbey.