The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Winter 2016-2017
Sam Shepard's richest and most resonant drama, well within the top twenty of great American plays, is given as sensitive and powerful a production as you could ask for in this import from New York.
I can think of very few plays other than Death Of A Salesman that are so purely American and offer so much insight into the American experience, while still working on the level of moving evocative human drama with welcome touches of black comedy.
A young man visits his grandfather's Midwestern farm, expecting to find bucolic and romanticised Americana straight out of the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Instead he discovers a family in the last stages of moral, spiritual and physical decay.
Grandfather is drinking himself to death while grandmother flirts or worse with the local priest. The farm has gone fallow, the boy's father is brain damaged, an uncle has lost a leg and another uncle died in questionable circumstances.
Much of this decline can be traced back to a family secret hinted at in the title, an event so deeply and unacceptably wrong that the family has been driven to denying it ever happened, that denial contributing as much to the corruption as the crime itself.
At first confused and horrified, the boy eventually realises that he must accept all of this, good and bad, as his heritage. And that beginning of the end of the denial, along with the literal unearthing of the secret, signals some small hope for the future.
One of the truly great things about Buried Child is that at no point does Shepard even hint that this specific story has symbolic or allegorical overtones, and yet they are unmistakeable.
The play is about the American cultural need to erase and deny anything unpleasant in its past in order to be able to think itself pure and healthy. Without ever even mentioning them it is about slavery and Native Americans and Vietnam and prejudice and inequality.
And without any hint of preaching, it says that America can only be healthy by acknowledging all of the past and accepting it as part of what created the present.
And of course Buried Child is also about a family for whom the term dysfunctional is barely adequate, and the attempts by the grandson (and the girlfriend travelling with him) to make sense of what they discover.
And on that level – even if you never notice the allegory – it is a fascinating, engrossing, frequently comic and almost as frequently touching picture of human beings trying to function under extraordinary circumstances.
Director Scott Elliot captures all of this, from the most personal and naturalistic to the most allegorical and culture-defining. This production is a model of the wonders that can occur when a director really understands a play and can lead his cast to the fullest expression of the playwright's vision.
Oh, I might have imagined the grandson played a little younger and more fragile than Jeremy Irvine makes him, and the grandmother a little older than Amy Madigan plays her.
But Irvine's forceful portrayal makes the boy's struggle to accept what he sees particularly dramatic and Madigan brings a touch of sexual energy to her character that playing her as older might lose.
Ed Harris anchors the play in a no-nonsense reality as the grandfather, the actor's gravity and authority guiding us toward sensing that there is more to the play than its bizarre surface.
And Charlotte Hope as the girlfriend completely out of her depth but surprising herself as well as us by the resources for coping she discovers in herself, ably carries the weight of being the audience's surrogate and way into the play.
The last time London saw Buried Child was in a disastrously misconceived and inept National Theatre production twelve years ago. This new version is therefore doubly welcome, for being so excellent in itself and for reminding us that, past experience notwithstanding, this is a very, very fine play.
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