The great American playwright, back in the West End with
'Buried Child', spent three formative years in London.
Those who were there remember.
Sam Shepard came to live in London in 1971, nursing
ambitions to be a rock musician. When he went home three
years later, he was soon to be found on the drumstool of
Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour. But as soon as he
arrived in London was waylaid by the burgeoning fringe
scene, and the rock god project took a back seat. His
reputation from the New York underground for courting
danger, taking risks, living on the edge etc went before
him, and the savage immediacy of his plays found a
natural home in the small space houses of the capital.
Outside the inner circle of the fringe, there wasn't
much fuss. "I think that London theatre should have got
more," remembers Stephen Rea. "The plays came and went
with only an acknowledgement by a small group of people.
Maybe they weren't aware of quite how important he was.
Because he became a movie star, he became a major
playwright. But he was a major playwright before that. I
think that he did some of his best writing here."
Shepard was already a significant figure when he came to
London, the darling of Greenwich Village and an annual
collector of Off Broadway Obie awards. Then, at the turn
of the decade, he broadened the canvas and wrote a play
"that demanded the kind of production only a big theatre
could give him," recalls John Lahr, then dramaturge of
the Lincoln Center. "So we gave it to him." Operation
Sidewinder was Shepard's first foray into what Lahr
calls the "enemy camp" of uptown. He brought his
experimental band, the Holy Modal Rounders, with him.
But his new audience wasn't ready. "We lost about 10,000
subscribers," says Lahr.
Like so many other American playwrights, in other words,
what first brought him to an environment less scornful
of flops was a critical handbagging back home. No wonder
Rea, for whom Shepard would later write the plays
Kicking a Dead Horse (2007) and Ages of the Moon (2009),
speaks of those years as a period "of reassembling
himself. My sense was that he was in recovery from
something. We began to mooch around together. He didn't
drink at that time and I drank quite a lot so the
mooching was of a very particular kind."
Nicholas Wright, then artistic director of the Theatre
Upstairs, recalls "a laconic, dry, very laid back, very
masculine Gary Cooperish kind of style, certainly very
direct, capable of being quite rude." "My impression,"
says the actress Dinah Stabb, "was that he was always
keenly interested in events going on outside the room.
Although he was part of the world of the Royal Court, he
never seemed to be of it. It's no surprise that he went
on to be a film star, because he seemed like a film star
when you met him. People always wanted to be part of
him, to be where he was."
Sam just let you do it. There was no directorial ego
The Royal Court's nascent Theatre Upstairs was among the
first theatres to get its fix of Shepard. Its third ever
production, in 1969, was La Turista. The King's Head
took up the baton with Chicago, Red Cross and The Holy
Ghostly, all lunchtime one-acters in which Shepard had
no direct involvement. Charles Marowitz premiered The
Tooth of Crime at the Open Space, a qualified success
starring Richard O'Brien as a young pretender ousting a
reigning rock monarch. In The Unseen Hand they hauled a
1956 Chevrolet onto the tiny stage of the Theatre
Upstairs, a stunt which impressed more than it had in
But from this distance it looks as if London was missing
its opportunity, and it's possible that Shepard sensed
it himself when he asked Wright if he could direct a
play commissioned from him by the Court. Geography of a
Horse Dreamer was an exercise in submerged autobiography
about a man called Cody kidnapped by betting racketeers
because his dreams predict horserace winners. His powers
shrink as he dreams dog winners, then mutates into a dog
himself. (In London Shepard couldn't indulge his
obsession with horses, but he co-owned a greyhound,
wishfully named Crazy Horse, and raced it at White City
The cast of Rea, Bob Hoskins and Kenneth Cranham, who
went down the dogs with their director, was augmented by
a non-actor cast solely on account of his vast bulk. "It
made enormous demands on Sam," recalls Wright, "that he
had to coach this elderly guy through a speech that he
showed no signs of ever getting to know, and Sam was
terribly patient. At that point I thought, you really
are taking this very seriously."
In rehearsals, contrary to convention, they ran straight
through the play from very early on. "There was no
messing about," says Rea. "Sam just let you do it. There
was no directorial ego going on. All the actors shelved
their ego because they knew it wouldn't wash." The shame
is that this (in retrospect) landmark production ran to
studio audiences for only three weeks. But at least the
play enjoyed an afterlife. Little Ocean, a short play
about pregnancy, ran very briefly late at night a month
later at the Hampstead Theatre (the author's local, who
lived just off the Heath), and has barely been seen
"He wrote it about three women," recalls Dinah Stabb:
"his wife O-Lan, who'd had a baby; me, who was about to
have a baby, and Caroline [Hutchinson, Rea's then
girlfriend], who hadn't had a baby. Because I was seven
months' pregnant I couldn't really do anything, and O-Lan
couldn't really work in this country. One day, he said,
'I'll write something for you.' So we all held our
breath, crossed our fingers, and waited. It was
extraordinary: it was written by a man, but it didn't
feel like that. There's a beautiful speech at the end
about what it feels like to give birth, about feeling
like a big animal" (a distinctly Shepardian trope). At
Shepard's suggestion, Rea directed, because "it seemed
part of the nature of him writing the play for these
women that it should be done by someone who was around."
Shepard himself wasn't around for much longer. Nancy
Meckler, a director he instinctively trusted, staged
Action at the Theatre Upstairs that September, and Rea
was in that too. And then, aged 30, he left. "He's an
American," says Rea. "He had to be close to his source.
At the end of Geography of a Horse Dreamer they put on
the Cajun music, and he has to be back with that. The
cowboys burst in and say, `We've come for our brother.'
Cody feels creatively constricted by his environment:
that's why he has to burst out and go home."