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 slowly emerges.

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 plains."

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 dream.

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 wild.

I've done this already. Haven't I already been through all this?"

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 comedy.

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 we do?'

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 detachment.

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 into it.

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 to.

Fergal O'Brien ( - Sam Shepard Does Beckett, U.S.-Style, and the Hero's a Cowboy:
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 failures.

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 can-opener.

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 modern America.

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 realised something."

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 Post:
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 desert’s horizon.

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 own skin’’.

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 atmosphere.

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 say.

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 big disappointment.

Shepard is not so much kicking a dead horse as milking the illusion of America’s scared cultural cow for all its worth.

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. Literally.

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,
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.

Reviews for the Almeida Performance - London, England - September 5-20, 2008

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 Abbey Theatre).

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 Standard:
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 inhabits.

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 corpse.

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 speech.

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 blazing away”.

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 half-baked.

Nick Curtis, Evening Standard - Sam Shepard rides into town:
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 them.

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 for Love".

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 landscape.

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 dream.

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 crimes.

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 whimper.

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 own land.

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 a kicking.