Spoilers are largely redundant when it comes to a play like Buried Child. Not only is a detailed plot description available online but writer Sam Shepard has put a big clue in the title. No matter. What makes this latest outing of his Pulitzer Prize-winning effort special is two things, one more obvious than the other.
The first is the cast. Leading the line is Ed Harris, a character actor well known to those who know him well who has appeared in about 100 different TV and film productions over the last 40 years. Recent years have seen him cast in roles as diverse as a terminally ill author in The Hours and the villainous Man In Black in HBO hit Westworld. Carrying over their roles from the Broadway run earlier this year, Harris appears here alongside his wife Amy Madigan who plays his character Dodge’s wife Halie.
The second is the backward-looking nature of Buried Child. In a time when science fiction franchises and Black Mirror’s tales of technological nightmares are flavour of the month, Buried Child is something of an anomaly. It outwardly references the breakdown of the 1970s rural economy but is more inspired by Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman.
As with that 1949 masterpiece, Shepard puts front and centre the emotionally demolished father who presides in his weak way over once-athletic sons who are now aimless and scrambling to find their own purpose in life. Shepard, though, has one over on Miller in terms of female roles: there are more here and they are well-rounded creations integral to the plot.
Harris’ casting is at once a great and terrible thing. On the one hand, it will bring more people in to see a play which is still relevant today both as a fascinating character study and a horror story whose true terror only reveals itself towards the end. On the other, Harris’s take on the broken down Dodge is too vibrant. His sparky wit and smart rejoinders make us lose interest or belief in this man’s own tragedy. How can a disabled and alcoholic failed farmer whose wife is shagging the local priest on the not-so-subtle sly and whose three once-famed sons have died or turned out to be a rapey barber or a peripatetic single father be this witty?
As his still-alive sons, Gary Shelford is superb as the hulking, menacing Bradley as is Barnaby Kay as Tilden, a man lost inside his own memories and fated never to emerge; both are bizarre and beautifully drawn characters in their own right. Madigan comes into her own in the final furlong as we realise just how far she has strayed from the idyllic notion of motherhood.
While Buried Child is acclaimed for its dark and moving drama, the comedic aspects should not be overlooked. The arrival of Dodge’s grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and his friend Shelly (Game of Thrones’ Charlotte Hope) provide the old man with fresh targets for his blunt and often hilarious snarkiness. Too many times, though, Scott Elliot’s directing sees the drama and comedy are at odds and lessen the effect of the other in a production which at times is a magnificently acted and wonderfully deep production.
Buried Child continues at Trafalgar Studios until