(Laura Barton’s article appeared in the Observer, 9/6.)
Sunday evening in Santa Fe and Sam Shepard and I are sitting at a downtown bar, drinking tequila and eating tacos. The light is low, the night warm and the conversation darts and dives while the bartender rattles the cocktail shaker and behind us the tables begin to fill. Already we have covered several pressing matters, including the merits of Chekhov ("I'm not crazy about him as a playwright… why are you going to bring a dead bird onstage?"), the qualities of greyhound piss ("like champagne" apparently), and the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis: "The way she turns into a bird! Unbelievable. You can't make that shit up."
But now our conversation has turned to the subject of True West, the play Shepard wrote in 1980, now revived at the Tricycle theatre in London. Directed by Phillip Breen and starring Eugene O'Hare and Alex Ferns, the production first appeared at the Glasgow Citizens theatre last year, earning much acclaim, not least from Shepard himself, who was instrumental in ensuring its London transfer.
"I think Phillip's production is great," he says this evening. "And the actors are terrific… You rely on great actors." He recalls one of the play's most notable stagings, in New York at the turn of the century, the two leads played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly, who alternated parts every so often to keep things lively.
Shepard saw Seymour Hoffman a week before he died of a heroin overdose in February and says he had no inkling anything was awry. "He was overweight, but he was overweight a lot," he says quietly. "And he was pretty tired. He said he was going to go back and take a nap… See, I don't think he meant to kill himself, I think he had some bad heroin. Though I didn't realise he was that much of a junkie."