|Sanctimonious babbler … Halie (Amy Madigan). Photograph: Johan Persson|
Buried Child review – Ed Harris is brutally compelling in Sam Shepard's dark drama
Trafalgar Studios, LondonHarris impresses as a whiskey-soaked old wreck in Shepard’s gothic story of loveless inertia and poisonous guilt in a dysfunctional family
Thursday 1 December 2016 23.00 GMT
t is good to see Hollywood veteran Ed Harris and his wife, Amy Madigan, gracing the London stage for the first time in Sam Shepard’s 1978 slice of American gothic. Shrewd casting also brings us the youthful Jeremy Irvine from Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Charlotte Hope from Game of Thrones in their West End debuts. Yet, haunting as Shepard’s play is, a faint air of portentous reverence overhangs Scott Elliott’s production.
What fascinates me is Shepard’s ability to play variations on the classic US family drama. Down on a decaying farm in Illinois, the patriarchal Dodge is an old wreck slugging whiskey and gazing fixedly at the television. His wife, Halie, is a sanctimonious babbler who dreams of erecting a town statue to a dead son. Of the pair’s living progeny, Tilden is a sad halfwit and Bradley a one-legged sadist. It is a sign of the general dysfunction that when Tilden’s son, Vince, turns up with his Californian girlfriend, he goes unrecognised. The family is palpably paralysed by some past event involving the buried child of the title.
|Attack on the American household gods … Ed Harris as Dodge and Barnaby Kay as Tilden in Buried Child. |
Photograph: Johan Persson
You could easily list the influences at work on Shepard: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and even Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. You also feel Shepard shrouds the play in symbolism: why the sudden fecundity of the mysterious field at the back of the house? But what keeps one riveted is Shepard’s attack on the familiar household gods. The close-knit American family, long cherished as a political ideal, is shown to be filled with dark secrets, poisonous guilt and loveless inertia. It is also, Shepard suggests, an institution from which there is no escape.
Much as I admire the piece, the detailed naturalism of Elliott’s production downplays the comedy that Matthew Warchus found in his 2004 National Theatre revival and slows the pace: every leak in the roof and overhead footstep is minutely registered. But at least there is ample time to dwell on the performances. Harris is totally compelling as Dodge. He captures the second childishness of old age as he pummels the sofa in a tantrum demanding another bottle of whiskey.
|Strong performances … Jeremy Irvine as Vince and Charlotte Hope as Shelly. |
Photograph: Johan Persson
Harris also catches perfectly the contradictions of a man who denies the past – claiming the present is “the whole shootin’ match” – while being oppressed by it. It is a fine performance that suggests a once-fruitful titan reduced to a hollow-eyed husk.
Madigan as Halie deftly mixes self-delusion with downright flirtiness in the presence of the local pastor. The young actors also impress: Irvine is all angry perplexity as Dodge’s unacknowledged grandson and Hope, as his girlfriend, wittily conveys the bafflement of the outsider who suspects she has wandered into a madhouse. Barnaby Kay as Tilden has a touch of the pathos of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Gary Shelford is suitably brutal as Bradley, even if you wonder precisely what led him to hack off his leg with a chainsaw. But that is one of the touches of grotesquerie that are part and parcel of Shepard’s vision. Loving as Elliott’s production is, you get the anguish without the absurdity that for Shepard is inseparable from family life.