Buried Child at the Trafalgar Studios - review

We are not just films lovers, but lovers of all drama in all its forms. So when we found out that the great Ed Harris was treading the boards of London's West End in Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child, we sent Ryan Hewitt from Curzon Head Office to check it out. 

Starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, it tells the story of a run-down farm in Illinois where Dodge (Harris) and Halie (Madigan) reside with their two sons, Tilden and Bradley. A surprise visit from estranged grandson, Vince, dramatically upsets the status quo.

Sam Shepard is truly a Renaissance man - a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and actor and, for a brief spell, a drummer in a rock'n'roll band. He spent some time shacked up in the Chelsea Hotel, had a short-lived love affair with Patti Smith, toured with Bob Dylan and eventually got hitched to Jessica Lange. His best known work might be the screenplay he penned for Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, and anyone who gets an kick out of Harry Dean Stanton’s heartbreaking monologue, recited to Nastassja Kinski through a heavy pane of glass, will without doubt find a comparable satisfaction in Shepard’s gruesomely titled Buried Child. On paper, it’s Southern Gothic to the Nth, but director Scott Elliot tones down some of Shepard’s self aware theatricality in favour of a more grounded piece, putting this staging closer in tone to Flannery O’Connor than to Harry Crews.

Ed Harris as Dodge in Buried Child

Ed Harris as Dodge in Buried Child

Ed Harris’ first utterance as Dodge is not a line of dialogue, but a tired, wheezing cough. Dodge is a man crippled by many things. He’s been dropped on his ass by the indignity of old age and disease, haunted by tragedy and guilt, and shackled by the burden of familial ties and the true antagonist of Shepard’s play: the fallacy that is the American dream.

Surrounded by shabby-not-chic decor, beneath a roof that leaks a needling drip, drip, drip of rain, above floorboards painted with a worn chintz decal, sat upon a sofa depressed by years of idle weight, Harris pulls Dodge’s grizzled face open to let out a hoarse voice long lost to decades of hollering and, no doubt, to drinking and smoking, too. Harris’ gruff, affected performance of an embittered soul trapped inside a body that is no good to him is one of tremendous physicality, despite the character’s immobility. His upper body moves like a whippet, striking at the air around him with a frightening force, while the decrepit lower body lays impotent. Dodge, a young at heart troublemaker surrendered to his fate, seems to come naturally to Harris who finds the humour in a man who really has nothing more of himself left. 

The set has tangible depth, much of the space on the stage given over to the external approach to the house, suggesting that vast acreage of fallow fields that we’re told have borne no fruit and thus no prosperity for nigh on 35 years. That is until today. Eldest son Tilden (Barnaby Kay) staggers into the family home, clutching in his arms all the corn he can carry. Dodge and wife Halie (Amy Madigan) don’t believe it, won’t believe it, but Tilden swears blind that the fields outside are miraculously in full yield.

L-R: Ed Harris as Dodge, Jeremy Irvine as Vince, Charlotte Hope as Shelly and Barnaby Kay as Tilden

L-R: Ed Harris as Dodge, Jeremy Irvine as Vince, Charlotte Hope as Shelly and Barnaby Kay as Tilden

It is here that we get our first clue that something is amiss in the fields beyond the family home, and the arrival of two outsiders, Dodge’s grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and his girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Hope), sets in motion a series of strange events that lead to the troubling confession alluded to in the play’s title.

Jeremy Irvine (seen recently in Steven Spielberg's War Horse), who takes the role of Vince, is extraordinary. While the best lines and the heart of the play beat belaboured within Dodge’s chest, it is Vince who goes through the most significant transformation. Arriving a beatnik from New York City, dressed in bebop roll neck and leather blazer, Vince is not the man he was duty-bound to be. Trading an absurdly long list of farm machinery and tools for a French horn, he has sought a new life in the city, swooning over the jazz clubs and jazz women alike. But Shelly, Vince doesn’t seem to know all that well. Dodge recognises it from the start. “Like chalk and cheese,” he says, as Vince’s efforts to introduce Shelly to his family come off as truly desperate. Shelly is a woman with a real backbone, but Charlotte Hope plays her with palpable vulnerability hidden beneath a lot of smart-mouth attitude. It’s an honest characterisation, but perhaps one that requires a leap of faith. This more delicate Shelly sticks around for far too long given the hostility she is subjected to. And while her means of escape is tactfully removed, there is nonetheless a nagging lack of credibility. 

L-R: Jeremy Irvine as Vince, Charlotte Hope as Shelly

L-R: Jeremy Irvine as Vince, Charlotte Hope as Shelly

Shepard is a writer with a wicked wit. Each in their own way, every character draws a high quota of laughs from the audience, some more knowingly than others. Dodge and Shelly will crack wise, the two of them recognising in one another that shared delight for mischief. Halie (Amy Madigan) is so helplessly desperate to repent that she has become the wilfully deluded evangelical who spends the majority of the first act a booming, omniscient voice calling down to Dodge from upstairs. Vince is largely humourless, which is what often happens to folk who’ve yet to figure out who they are or what they want to be, so laughs are largely at his own expense, and Bradley (Gary Shelford), the buffoon who cut off his own leg with a chainsaw, is a hilarious cry-baby. 

Buried Child was first performed at Magic Theatre in San Francisco back in 1978. Having previously worked on the screenplay for Antonioni’s clarion call against consumerism, Zabriskie Point, Shepard was already established as a writer with a war to wage on American ideals. Buried Child’s take-down of the American value system, arriving the very same year as Jimmy Carter’s famous, impassioned state of the nation address, foreshadowed America’s awakening, delivered by a prophet who could see that the wheels were falling off before anyone cared to notice.

In the years since, America - and the UK - has seen several cycles of boom and bust, and now we find ourselves at a point where Buried Child might once again be a work of staggering pertinence. Guilty secrets thought buried, rotting outback, contaminating the very soil that should bring prosperity are dug up and aired to the shock of those who were unaware, as well as those who knew all too well. The hope is that Buried Child will soon fall out of fashion as the years pass and we can forget to pay heed to its relevance, slipping back into complacency for a term. But for now, that is far from the case and Shepard’s finest stage work can be rediscovered and appreciated anew. 

[Ryan Hewitt]


Buried Child plays in repertoire at the Trafalgar Studios until February 2017. Book your tickets here.


Ed Harris will be at Curzon Soho this Sunday 18 December for a Q&A following a special screening of his film Pollock, a biopic of the iconic abstract painter. He will be in conversation with Edith Devaney, the curator of the Royal Academy of Art's landmark exhibition Abstract Expressionism.