Should Pulitzer-Winning Play Buried Child Remain Buried?

Buried Child, Trafalgar Studios ★★★☆☆

By Chris Bridges Last edited 26 months ago

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Should Pulitzer-Winning Play Buried Child Remain Buried? Buried Child, Trafalgar Studios 3
Jeremy Irvine & Charlotte Hope in Buried Child. Photo: Johan Persson

Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1978 play has crawled its way back up to the surface for an airing at Trafalgar Studios. The question is whether it should have stayed buried, or whether it's due another disinterment after the last revival at the National Theatre 12 years ago?

The main draw for audiences is the appearance of veteran Hollywood actor Ed Harris, alongside his wife Amy Madigan. They play Dodge, a grizzled old farmer laid low by hardship, fags and booze who’s now residing on the sofa with a bottle of whiskey, and Halie, his sharp tongued God-fearing wife who lives off the idealised memory of their dead son.

Ed Harris in Buried Child. Photo: Johan Persson

The two are a mesmerising sight to behold. The eyes of the audience are drawn to Harris, whatever else is happening in the rundown farmhouse (and a lot of weird stuff does happen). He’s cruel and dominant, yet also pathetic patriarch wheezing out his last breaths. One narrowing of Harris’ reddened eye speaks volumes, and he’s on stage from start to finish. Madigan is equally commanding as his monstrous wife, presiding over a house of Gothic misfits. It’s a genuine privilege to see two such consummate actors together on stage.

Ed Harris, Jeremy Irvine, Charlotte Hope & Barnaby Kay in Buried Child. Photo: Johan Persson

The play has always divided critical opinion. Shepard himself called it ‘verbose and overblown’, and was inspired to rewrite it in 1996, believing he’d successfully overcome its problems. Dodge and Halie are two apparent monsters, living in squalor in Illinois with their sons; Tilden, a bewildered fool, and Bradley, who’s somehow chopped off his own leg with a chainsaw. Into this house of grotesques arrive the estranged grandson Vince (played by Jeremy Irvine, who was the wholesome, two-legged one in ‘War Horse’) and his girlfriend. Things become as ugly as you’d expect them to be.

Amy Madigan & Charlotte Hope in Buried Child. Photo: Johan Persson

Much darker than a lot of his work, Shepherd presents a compellingly vile working class American family. The action veers constantly between comedy and brutality that doesn’t always meld well. There’s overt and blindingly obvious symbolism (barren fields and all that) mixed up with obscure and unfathomable allegory. It’s a frustrating mix that hits the mark as often as it misses. There are some moments where it feels every bit of its running time (almost three hours with two brisk intervals) but others where it flies by. There’s a great cast and set but it’s a play that doesn’t feel either wholly entertaining or entirely unwatchable.

Buried Child runs at Trafalgar Studios until the 18 February 2017 with tickets from £35 to £120. Londonist attended on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 06 December 2016