Sunday, 4 December 2016

Review Buried Child

Hidden family and state-of-the-nation secrets combine in Sam Shepherd's American Gothic comico-tragedy to give Francis Beckett a thrilling and disturbing evening.

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard

Secrets And Lies

Buried Child is a powerful play by Sam Shepard, an American theatre writer who knows his business, and director Scott Elliott gives it a production at the Trafalgar Studios that plays to its strengths, together with an almost perfect cast.

First produced in 1979 and set in Illinois, the state of Shepard's birth, the play is being sold as a political commentary on the seventies in the USA, but is just as relevant about the dark heart of middle America, as it was then and is now.

It's a long play - three acts, two intervals - with a transfixing first act, establishing the loneliness and nastiness of life on a failing farm in the middle of the vast American continent, confined in the small living room of husband and wife, Dodge and Haile. The play never leaves the room and Dodge, unable to walk, cannot even leave the sofa.

You have, right from the start, the claustrophobic feeling of being cooped up in that horrid, ugly room with the sick and dying old man, his brittle wife and his two sad and useless grown-up sons.

The second act offers us menace in that small space as the rain comes down in great sheets outside. A new person is in the room: a young woman from the city, Shelly, who cannot escape the two strange sons and their strange, crippled father.

In act three, the rain stops, and the young woman grows in confidence and forces the family to face its darkest secrets.

The play confronts us with a Middle America which has lost its soul and its humanity. The old man fights furiously over a blanket with one son, the son who has lost a leg, punching him viciously and repeatedly with all his failing strength. He fights over a bottle of whisky with the other son, who has lost his way, his nerve and perhaps his reason.

"You think just because people propagate they gotta love their offspring?" Dodge growls. It's not true among animals, he says, so why should we be different? And in that small room, the difference has indeed disappeared.

Yet even after the dreadful thing we learn of him in the play's last few minutes, we do not believe Dodge is entirely a bad old man. He is just lost amid the dust and poverty and misery and rain and hopelessness.

A fine cast is headed by Ed Harris (for whom Shepherd wrote Fool For Love) as Dodge. It's a wonderful, draining performance dominating the play, beginning to end, from the sofa except for the moments when he is on the floor.

Amy Madigan puts in a fine performance as his wife Haile, with only her piety to stand guard between her and the squalor around her. Barnaby Kay and Gary Shelford are convincing as the two sons, Bradley and Tilden.

Jeremy Irvine does the best an actor can do with Dodge's grandson Vince, hampered because the playwright's convenience requires Vince to behave in occasionally inconsistent ways. Jack Fortune makes the most of a nice cameo part as Haile's priest.

But apart from Ed Harris, the acting honours of the evening belong to Charlotte Hope as Shelly, turning slowly from dippy city girl to the strong catalyst who makes this dysfunctional family finally face what they have done to themselves and each other and what America has done to them.

The first two acts are marvellous. The third makes a few too many demands on our ability to suspend our disbelief - among other things, Vince has to go from roaring, fighting drunk to sober and reflective in a very few minutes. And the loose ends are not satisfactorily tied up.

But leave any awkwardnesses in the storytelling aside, for the end remains very troubling. For me it is not, despite the theatre's publicity, saying that Middle America was like this in the seventies. It is saying: This is Middle America, get over it.

The last few moments with Vince - I will not spoil it by telling you what they are - seem to imply Dodge will be replaced by someone just like him. The bestial patriarch's grandson will be the next patriarch.

In our current times, the play left me with a vision of the dark heart of Middle America. A great, grey soulless centre of a vast continent loathing the rest of the world, and even the rest of its own nation, filled with hopelessness and hate, which has now given us all a Donald Trump presidency, even though it knew in its heart that it had nothing to gain. A green light from me.

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