Like the gravedigger in Hamlet, Stephen Rea climbs out of the hole he has dug for himself, muttering about his own bad luck. His horse is as dead as a dodo. He is Hobart Struther, an art dealer and businessman who has turned his back on the city and family life he built by trading on the material evidence of the nation’s myths and artefacts.
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.