Sam Shepard reading, 1997, from The Independent, review
6th January 1997
EVENT Sam Shepard Battersea Arts Centre, London
Monday 06 January 1997
Sam Shepard never flies anywhere, let alone does readings and question-and-answer sessions and what he calls press junkets. So how the playwright came to touch down on this side of the Atlantic was as much a mystery to the 480 assembled in the BAC’s fusty, draughty main hall on Friday night, as why he had chosen this venue, of all places, in which to break his own rules. The logistics of his getting over here were eventually laid bare: “I drove,” he insisted, the ghost of a smile playing round his thin lips. There was an equally simple explanation for his visit: he was paying a courtesy call downtown, where a festival of his work was held last year, while his longtime partner, Jessica Lange, went to work up west in A Streetcar Named Desire. But you still knew there was a vast expanse of uncharted devil-may-care behind his attendance.
Shepard thrives on elusiveness, his image a nebulous cluster of talents – writer, movie-star, anti-Hollywood loner, drummer, all-round heart-throb. Up on his podium, the look was somewhere between Pulitzer Prize-winning elder statesman (head bowed, furrowed brow, oval specs) and jaded cowboy (a jacket as leathery as his cheeks, clean jeans and a belt-tip that glinted under the lights). “I’m not getting any younger and my face is falling apart,” the 53-year-old intoned and, for a minute, it sounded as though he was shooting straight from the hip. Then you realised that this was from his new collection of prose snapshots, Cruising Paradise – where autobiographical reminiscence blurs into self-mythologising; where the anonymous voices of the dispossessed rise and fall along taut narrative lines that criss-cross his country’s wide open spaces.
That Shepard’s drama often devastatingly embodies this post-Dream fracture was brought out by a carefully considered hour-long flip through his back- catalogue (and with 45 plays behind him, ranging from such experimental beauties as Savage/ Love to the more mainstream fare of Fool for Love, it’s quite a pile). We went headlong into a dialogue between the two brothers, Austin and Lee – one a screenwriter, the other a desert drifter – from True West (1980). On stage, the two men’s violent relationship becomes a psycho-symbolic playing out of interdependent, self-destructive urges. Listening to Shepard’s faultless rendition was like eavesdropping on a man talking to himself in a car, shifting back and forth between registers; we see that what starts as amusing bickering will, over a long distance, abandon all sanity. Many of the other 20-odd extracts struck a similarly unnerving balance between droll characterisation and the dark terror of characterlessness. Though the laughs ran high at “Repeat” and “Gary Cooper, or the Landscape”, where the questions of the dim-witted and the vacuous are held up to cruel, poetically precise inspection, you couldn’t help wondering what Shepard would make of his fans’ own enquiries.
He engaged in a bit of “truck snobbery” with one lucky interlocutor. “You have a Mazda? Oh…” (His – a Dodge Turbo Diesel, “a truck that will pull a tree right outta the ground.”) But mainly he kept a laconic distance. Talking about his current work “kinda throws a hex on it”. Future work? “The family thing is here to stay.” Politics? “I don’t have any faith in American politics on either side, to tell you the truth.” He was most expansive about London, where he wrote five plays (mainly for the Royal Court) in the early Seventies and raced greyhounds: “I came here when I was kinda at the enda something in New York… I’d fallen off a tightrope… people here were very generous.” As for the toughest poser, about his contradictory stance on Hollywood, he responded exactly as a star who has no time for stardom should: with enigmatic directness. “Yes, it’s all very incongruous,” he drawled. “Shameful, isn’t it?” Perhaps, but in those surroundings, incongruity could only be the trigger for wild applause.