At a time when the British press discusses America more than it does Britain, along comes this autumn’s second West End Sam Shepard revival – an Off-Broadway transfer, no less – for the critics to sink their teeth into.
Hot on the heels of Found111’s Fool For Love, Buried Child details the surreally dark life of a dysfunctional Illinois farming family, just in case you hadn’t heard enough about the disenfranchised American working class recently.
Scott Elliott’s production, at Trafalgar Studios until mid-February, features Hollywood star Ed Harris as chain-smoking, applejack-swigging patriarch Dodge, and Amy Madigan as Dodge’s steely, unfaithful wife, Halie. The pair, married in life as well as fiction, are joined by a fresh British cast which includes War Horse’s Jeremy Irving and Game Of Thrones’ Charlotte Hope.
The play’s 1978 New York premiere won Shepard a Pulitzer Prize and pushed him firmly into the American mainstream. But the playwright, often mentioned in the same breath as O’Neill, Miller and Williams across the pond, has struggled to achieve the same renown on the British stage.
Can Elliott’s revival change that, or will Shepard’s work remain elusive as ever? Does the 66 year-old Harris cause a stir on his long overdue London debut, or should he have stuck to the silver screen? And can any critic talk about American politics without requiring a change of underwear?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…
Buried Child takes a classic American family scene and twists it grotesquely out of shape. Dodge and Halie grumble at each other relentlessly. Their two surviving sons are damaged and deranged. When their grandson shows up, girlfriend in tow, they greet him with unrecognising hostility. And out in the soil of the backyard, a dark secret extends its oppressive grip over everyone. But what does it all mean?
Well, perhaps inevitably, many read Shepard’s play as a comment on the state of contemporary America. Or 70s America. Or just America in general.
Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★) thinks that Buried Child “gained resonance since 2016’s most apocalyptic political development”, and Matt Trueman (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) agrees. “Right on cue, the Rust Belt lands in the West End”, he opens, continuing to describe how “Shepard shows us an America on its knees”.
Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) is with them, succinctly describing how Shepard is “holding a mirror to his country’s crumbling sense of self – true to the 70s, true to the Trump-era”.
Others, however, uncover something different. Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★) thinks Shepard’s play “is all about the act of forgetting and the awful things families lock in boxes and brush under rugs”. Jenny Gilbert (Arts Desk, ★★★★) follows her, seeing allusions to Greek tragedy in how it addresses “issues of family guilt and shame and inheritance”.
Still more find different interpretations. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) sees a “horrible, haunting fable about a family struck down for its arrogance”. Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★) thinks that the play exists “in a virtual vacuum, proudly removed from any sense of a quotidian world”. And Fergus Morgan (Exeunt) asks whether Shepard is observing “the brash hollowness of hope itself, and the infectious nature of despair?”
Susannah Rose Martin (Official Theatre, ★★★★) is probably closest to the truth when she writes that “there are a dozen different themes bubbling away in this American Gothic”, but not all find something to cheer.
Niall Harman (The Reviews Hub, ★★) thinks Buried Child is “a messy and frustrating play” and Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★) thinks it “a loathsome offering, which manages to be both thuddingly allegorical and pretentiously cryptic”.
So much for the play, but what about the players? How does Harris – star of Westworld, A Beautiful Mind and The Abyss – do on his first appearance on the London stage?
Well, pretty damn good. For Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★), Harris is “magnificent”, “voice as rusty as one of his old tractors”, and for Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) he is “totally compelling”, providing “a fine performance that suggests a once-fruitful titan reduced to a hollow-eyed husk”.
Clearly, Harris has brought some of his screen experience to the stage. For Trueman, his is “the sort of contained cinematic performance that pulls an audience in close”, while for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★) it is one “of terrific, understated authority”. “Even his silences are eloquent”, adds Mersa Auda (The Upcoming, ★★★★).
Lavish praise is almost universal, even from the unhappy Letts. Only Cavendish detects a dissonant note. “Harris is compelling in his spectral balefulness and resignation”, he admits, “but he’s a touch too muted.”
Madigan and Hope are widely lauded as well. Swain admires the way Madigan “layers shifting emotions beneat Halie’s determinedly flat, controlled delivery”, while Tripney is particularly impressed by Hope. “She’s an endearing and grounding presence in this weird world, kind and bright”, Tripney writes.
Mountford begins her review with a warning: “you are now entering Sam Shepard territory”. “The domain of this modern classic playwright”, she writes, “is a quasi-mythic American landscape of drifters and dreamers, where fractured families are in denial about pretty much everything and no one’s done any washing-up for weeks.”
It’s a pretty apt description of Shepard’s corpus, and it hints at the prevailing ethos of Shepard productions: they trade on atmosphere as much as words. As Tripney writes in her review, “Buried Child is very much a mood-piece.”
What is that mood exactly? Well, for Trueman, it’s “Harold Pinter meets Eugene O’Neill”, “The Homecoming via Little House on the Prairie”. And he’s not the only one to detect a touch of Pinter. Lukowski admires the production’s “thrillingly unsettling mix of American Gothic and Pinteresque menace” and Billington identifies the influences at work on Shepard: Miller, Albee and, yep, Pinter.
Some delight in Elliott’s naturalistic direction, and in – as Lukowski puts it – Derek McLane’s “bleak, rain-lashed shithole of a home” set. But others feel it is misplaced. Billington sees “the anguish but not the absurdity” of the play, Swain thinks that “Elliott’s reverent naturalism doesn’t entirely work”, and Luke Jones (TheatreCat) accuses Elliott of trying “to ramp up the mysticism”.
Taylor captures the prevailing sentiment well: “Elliott’s revival is compelling and lucid but its brow seems to be a bit too furrowed with solemn respect”.
Tricky one. The production? Yes. Although it might misjudge the tone of the play slightly, Elliott’s production, most agree, is a richly detailed study in naturalistic despair and boasts a performance of quiet magnificence from Ed Harris.
The play? Maybe. Some, like Jones, think it’s a bit of a con, riddled with “stodgy incoherence” and “in no sense original, insightful or entertaining”. Others are more equivocal, following Treneman in appreciating the multiplicity of meaning behind, as Tripney puts it, “this odd American fable, full of family secrets, tainted earth and unlegged men”.
In any case, Lukowski’s right. Buried Child is “not exactly Christmassy”.
All photos: Johan Persson