Remembering Sam Shepard

Foyle Film Festival pays tribute to the late actor, writer and playwright four years after hosting him in the city that also staged his final drama

For anyone sustained by the vital currents and alternative visions of American culture, the loss of actor, writer and playwright Sam Shepard is devastating. In this Derry, there is a particular sadness, for it was here in this city that Sam Shepard unveiled his final, explosive play.

In the autumn of 2013, Sam Shepard spent five weeks in Derry getting to know the city and attending rehearsals for the Field Day Theatre Company production of his new play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) which was premiered at the Playhouse in December.

Shepard already had a connection with Derry dating back to the early '70s, but it was a strange one. The connection was revealed in an interview in 1972 at his London home when he explained to a Time Out journalist the origin of the black greyhound that lay dozing on the divan. 'This here dawg,' Sam drawled, 'is a real champ. Comes from the north of Ireland. The Bogside.'

The greyhound was called Keywall Spectre and Shepard took it racing at Hackney Wick where it regularly came in first. The dog started showing up in the new experimental plays he was writing in London since his relocation from New York in 1971.

Geography of a Horse Dreamer stages the kidnapping by gangsters of Cody, a young man who has a gift for dreaming the winners of horse races. Tied to a bed in a London hotel room, he loses his power to dream of horses and begins to dream the winners of greyhound races instead.

The play opened at the Royal Court Theatre in February 1974. In the lead role of Cody was a young Irish actor beginning to make a name for himself – Stephen Rea. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and artistic partnership that would eventually bring Sam Shepard to Derry.

Particle of Dread

'I was introduced to Sam when he first came to London in the early 70s; we had a shared interest in Beckett and that drew us together right at the beginning,' Rea remembers. 'He was a fantastic presence in London at that time – discreet, but remarkable, with a different level of creativity. He was directing a new play he’d written called Geography of a Horse Dreamer and he asked me to play the horse dreamer.

'It was a completely fresh experience. On the first day, he brought in recordings that he thought suited our characters – I had Hank Williams – and when we got the work done we used to sit around and play poker. For the cast, Kenneth Cranham, Bob Hoskins and me, it was something so different; it wasn’t the English hierarchical system where the director hires you and tells you what to do. He was never domineering; so long as you were enjoying the work he was happy.'

Sam Shepard was already America’s hottest young playwright when he made his screen debut in Terrence Malick’s classic Days of Heaven (1978). Four years later, Stephen Rea began his career in cinema as the traumatised saxophonist in Neil Jordan’s Angel. The two friends appeared on screen together in the western Blackthorn (2011) in which Shepard played an aged and grizzled Butch Cassidy, hiding out in Bolivia, pursued by his nemesis, a Pinkerton detective played by Rea. 

Shepard wrote several plays for Rea that were premiered at the Abbey Theatre including the one man tour-de-force, Kicking A Dead Horse in 2007. As Rea recalls, 'it was really about the end of the myth of the west, which he very much felt. In that play, he seemed to be saying that America had lost any right to a myth of courage and bravery, because of Iraq. Sam was really taking on his own love of the west, the imagery of it, the mythology of it, and saying "it’s useless now, it’s finished".'

When asked to revive Field Day Theatre Company for Derry’s year as City of Culture, Rea approached Shepard to write a new play to be premiered at the Playhouse which would then travel to New York. A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) with Rea in the lead role of Oedipus was one of the triumphs of the City of Culture year.

The play consciously set out to shock with its abattoir setting and police investigation of a bloody act of violence. Performed in a city still showing the scars of traumatic conflict, Shepard’s final drama was very close to the bone.

As well as being one of the 20th century’s greatest dramatists, Sam Shepard was a brilliant chronicler of the tragi-comic and the surreal in his short story collections, Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise, Great Dream of Heaven and Day Out of Days.

It is fitting then that the Foyle Film Festival’s tribute to Sam on Sunday, November 19 at the Nerve Centre (following a screening of Days of Heaven at 2.00pm) should feature readings from these collections by Stephen Rea and Judith Roddy.

To book tickets for Days of Heaven and other events taking place as part of the 30th Foyle Film Festival in Derry~Londonderry click here.