‘When I think of Sam, I see a man on a horse, al­ways mov­ing on’

As Sam Shep­ard’s best-loved play is staged, fa­mous fans tell Do­minic Cavendish why he was ‘a true one-off ’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THEATRE -

How do we get the mea­sure of the late Sam Shep­ard? He wrote more than 40 plays, many of which re­fused to yield neat and tidy ex­pla­na­tions. He ap­peared in around 50 ma­jor films, fol­low­ing his 1983 break­through role as fear­less test pi­lot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Yet, de­spite a string of en­tan­gle­ments with fa­mous women – among them Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, the ac­tress O-Lan Jones (his wife of 15 years) and Jes­sica Lange (his part­ner of nearly 30) – he stayed out­side the fray of Hol­ly­wood gos­sip. What’s more, his dis­like of fly­ing meant that, aside from a pe­riod in the early Seven­ties when he pitched camp in London, this chis­elled, cow­boy-es­que fig­ure was sel­dom seen in the flesh on our side of the pond.

This month, more than a year af­ter his death at the age of 73 as a re­sult of mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease, there’ll be a cel­e­bra­tion held in Shep­ard’s hon­our at the Royal Court, the London the­atre that gave him artis­tic shel­ter be­tween 1971 and 1974. It’s rea­son­able to as­sume he would have shied away from such a spotlight event in his life­time. Nor is it likely, even if his health had re­mained good, that an im­mi­nent West End re­vival of one of his best-loved plays, True West (1980), would have lured him to London. Af­ter all, even dur­ing one of the most cel­e­brated pro­duc­tions of True West, a 1982 New York stag­ing that ran for more than a year and starred John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, Shep­ard was nowhere to be seen.

“I don’t know if he saw the whole thing,” Malkovich tells me. “It was at a lovely lit­tle the­atre in New York, Cherry Lane, and there would be An­to­nioni or Kurt Von­negut or Jac­que­line Onas­sis or Bowie – kind of ev­ery­body came. But I don’t be­lieve I met Sam dur­ing the run.” Wasn’t it odd to have no con­tact with the au­thor? Malkovich thinks not. “Sam wasn’t a con­ven­tional movie star, he wasn’t a con­ven­tional any­thing. He was a real one-off.”

Juli­ette Lewis, the Amer­i­can ac­tress and singer who made her West End debut in Shep­ard’s Fool for Love in 2006, tells me that dur­ing the pub­lic­ity tour for the 2013 film Au­gust: Osage County, in which she ap­peared along­side Shep­ard, “they couldn’t cor­ral him to do the ex­pected thing, hang at ta­bles and schmooze. He was dis­rup­tive in the most charming way. Halfway in he was, like, ‘I’ll be at the bar’ and dis­ap­peared. When I think of him, I see a man on his horse, al­ways on to the next town.”

Rest­less­ness, root­less­ness, a sen­sa­tion of not be­long­ing and strain­ing to be some­where else – even if that some­where is only to be found at the bot­tom of the bot­tle – these as­pects of Shep­ard’s per­son­al­ity are man­i­fest in his works, which abound with con­trary im­pulses, melan­choly, volatil­ity and vi­o­lence. Whereas David Mamet has carved out as his ter­rain the ex­treme fi­nan­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure that the Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem places on peo­ple, es­pe­cially men, Shep­ard’s sense of the fis­sures that run through in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies seems to reach fur­ther – into the strange­ness of be­ing hu­man.

In his fi­nal work of prose, Spy of the First Per­son, com­pleted in his dy­ing days and pub­lished posthu­mously last year, Shep­ard’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal-seem­ing nar­ra­tor, who sits out­side, al­most im­mo­bilised, watch­ing na­ture go by, asks: “Where ex­actly do we come from? That’s one ques­tion. Was it a desert? Was it a for­est?

Was it a moun­tain? Was it the prairie? Where do we ac­tu­ally come from?”

The Amer­i­can ac­tor Michael Shannon – an habitué of Shep­ard’s work, who also ap­peared in a hand­ful of films along­side him

(and can now be seen in the BBC’s The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl) – voiced the au­dio record­ing of that last book. “I think chief among his

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