Review – Buried Child: A chilling deconstruction of the American dream ★★★★★

When Sam Shepard’s Buried Child premiered in the US in 1978 it propelled him to national celebrity. New Group’s towering new production now arrives at The Trafalgar Studios from an acclaimed Off-Broadway run and feels as important and shocking today as it must have done nearly 40 years ago.

Firstly, I have to commend Jeremy S Bloom’s atmospheric sound design, with torrential rain seeming to envelop the whole theatre as the audience arrives. A heavy air pervades the open set with Dodge (Ed Harris) staring bleakly out from a sofa like he’s trapped in a post-apocalyptic episode of Gogglebox. It’s an uncomfortable feeling – added to by the Trafalgar Studios utilitarian seating.

Ed Harris performance is the equivalent of the American King Lear
Ed Harris gives a performance to rival the American King Lear

As the show begins, Dodge yawns and coughs up a lump of phlegm into a bucket. The tone is set for a gritty evening. We hear a voice call “What’s it like down there?” – his reply “Catastrophic” is ironic but also portentous. For much of the first act, Dodge’s wife Halie (Amy Madigan) is only heard from upstairs. It’s a clever device used to great effect, exposing through physical separation the gulf between the two characters. Dodge and Halie’s relationship is like a bleak version of Married with Children – the antithesis of the American dream and at times uncomfortable to watch.

Pill-popping Dodge is as weary of life as he is of Halie and her religion. “Nothing gets me excited” elicits laughter but it’s an uncomfortable truth. I couldn’t help but feel that these are Trump’s core voters – disillusioned with life and simply hoping for a way – any way – out. You can hear Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in Shepard’s writing, but his language is more barren, reflecting the rural lives of his protagonists. “There’s no honor in self destruction. No honor at all.”

Amy Madigan (left) is mesmerising
Amy Madigan (left) – somewhere between Marion Cunningham and Annie Wilkes

One by one, the layers of the family’s strife are revealed. A son, Tilden, has moved back home to rural Illinois after “a little trouble back there in New Mexico”. His conversation is stilted and his familial ties strained. Dodge meanwhile seems unable to cope with the reality of their situation, preferring instead to turn to the bottle or focus on unimportant little details like why a stool should not be called a chair. That he’s been there for 53 years without ever speaking to their neighbours paints a scene of utter rural isolation as father and son sit together husking corn.

Tilden is the eldest, but not the only child. He was a quarterback, but there were other brothers, Bradley, who lost a leg, and Ansel who the family claim was murdered. Halie hero-worships Ansel, saying she wished he had died in action rather than a motel room – something she believes his wife was responsible for. “Catholic women are the devil incarnate” – her comments those of a woman filled with hatred for “the other”.

The use of “upstairs” is both a metaphor for denial and a device to keep characters once-removed. “Things keep happening while you’re upstairs” Dodge tells Halie. Amy Madigan’s performance is positively frightening – playing Halie somewhere between Marion Cunningham and Annie Wilkes.

While their relationship festers inside, Dodge implores his son not to leave the house. His warning that “my blood is out there in the back yard” and “Don’t go outside. There’s nothing out there you need” could come straight from a horror classic. The script is punctuated with oppressive silences that would make Pinter feel awkward. As Tilden leaves, another son, Bradley (Gary Shelford), returns. Monsoon-like rain continues to pour as Bradley limps around the house moving buckets to collect the leaks in the roof where rainwater falls like the haemorrhaging blood of a butchered family.

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Barnaby Kay (Tilden) had “a little trouble” back in New Mexico

The first of three acts ends with the emasculation of Dodge by his son, cutting his hair like a sleeping Samson. As the second of three acts begins, the storm becomes more violent. Vince (Tilden’s son – played by rising star Jeremy Irvine) arrives with his girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Hope) to a scene that (as Shelly says) “looks like a Norman Rockwell picture”. Dodge doesn’t recognize his grandson, which only adds to the sense of hyperrealism, and tries to convince him that “It’s much better not to know anything”.

Shelly comes from LA – a place Dodge describes as “stupid country”, adding that Florida, too, is “full of smart asses.” – a distrust of “the other” seeming to run deep. As Shelly tries desperately to convince Vince that he may simply have the wrong house, Tilden returns – this time with carrots. The sense of disease grows as Tilden also fails to recognise his own son. It’s bleak, but Shepard’s writing does offer some light relief as Shelly’s announces that she’s a vegetarian – to which Dodge quickly replies “Hitler was a vegetarian”.

This dustbowl existence of North American families resonates loudly today and lines such as “I thought I saw a face inside a face” seem like a ghostly premonition of Trump’s America. At times, Barnaby Kay’s Tilden seemed a little too close to Steinbeck’s Lenny, with a naïve sexuality coupled with brute strength.

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“She’s a vegetarian”….”Hitler was a vegetarian”.

There are some truly outstanding monologues: Tilden’s description of the child he fathered, hidden away “like a secret buried treasure…so small you could hold it in one hand and pass it to the other” is beautifully constructed. But this family is not ready to part with the whole truth, and with their darkest secret only partially unearthed, Tilden is hounded out – told to “Scat like a frightened dog.”

With Vince sent out for two-dollar whisky, Bradley takes control, walking from lamp to lamp plunging the room into ever deeper gloom. Then, making Shelly open her mouth wide – wider – he forces his fingers down her throat like he is trying to make her vomit out the truth.

As the daylight of Act 3 streams in, the humour remains deliciously dark. “He’s a pushover – especially now” remarks Dodge, referring to Bradley, now asleep and minus his prosthesis. The third act is, perhaps, the most reflective, with a blunt poignancy in Dodge’s description of Halie tracing a family tree which, as he points out with brutal honesty, simply reveals that we all come from a long line of corpses.

When Halie finally returns with The Reverend in tow, she is put out to find a complete stranger in her house. “You can’t leave this house for a second without the devil blowing in the front door”. Convinced that Shelly is a prostitute, and refusing to hear the truth, Halie focuses her attention on keeping up the façade of respectability – “Believe me father, this is not what I had in mind when I invited you in”.

All attempts by Shelly to explain that she came to the house with Halie’s grandson are in vain. Bradley’s panicked questioning “You’re not the police? You’re not the government?” still further illustrate the family’s, and rural America’s, suspicion of authority and otherness.

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The final scenes, in a play packed with emotional brutality, are the most painful. Even as Dodge finally gives up the family’s terrible secret, Halie tries one final time to preserve their respectability. “Dodge, if you tell this thing you’ll be dead. Dead to me.” but as one man liberated by mortality, another is subsumed into tragedy.

Buried child speaks to all of our fears, our despairs, our grief. Amongst an excellent cast, Ed Harris’ performance stands out as American Theatre’s King Lear, and Amy Madigan gives a chilling performance that will haunt theatre for a generation.

Buy tickets now for Buried Child  – this is life-changing theatre.

Buried Child
Trafalgar Studios
Until 18 February 2017

Running time approx 2h40m including two intervals

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