There's No Place Like Home

Issue section: 
(290)

Review of 'Buried Child' by Sam Shepherd, National Theatre, London

Many post-war American playwrights have delved into the reality of life inside of the nuclear family. Sam Shepherd's Buried Child, a 1978 play in revival at the National Theatre, does so with an incredible richness of imagery.

From the beginning we know that we are in for a close examination of a chaotic, disturbed home as the lights go up on the inside of a ramshackle barn-like living room set, which moves towards the audience as though to catch us up in its stifling gloom. The accompanying incessant rain and discordant music match perfectly the opening dialogue between an elderly couple - Halie is so repulsed by her grouchy, slovenly husband, Dodge, that she speaks entirely from offstage. (Few characters in this play can bear to be in the same room as others for very long.) Her wistful reminiscences of a youthful suitor contrast with the sharp orders barked at Dodge about his drinking and moaning.

Our sense that something is badly wrong here is furthered by the separate entrances of the couple's two sons, Tildan and Bradley, each clearly scarred, bitter and, in Bradley's case, dangerous. Their outlandish behaviour is both comic and tragic. The miscommunication and third party conversations between the members of the family bring much laughter as well as a dread of what is to come.

The arrival of Shelley, the girlfriend of Tildan's long departed son, Vince, finally gives voice to the audience's response to this high level of dysfunction. The family unite only in their refusal/inability to recognise Vince and Shelley struggling in vain to demand some kind of 'normal' hospitality for their visit.

She pushes various members of the family to get beneath their anger and scorn. Dodge's warning to her not to meddle in their guilty secrets and hidden past offers a grim and honest perspective on the dark reality of our familial relations. He barks at her, 'You got some damn funny ideas. You think just because people propagate they have to love their offspring? You never seen a bitch eat her puppies?' Time and time again Shepherd uses such imagery of nature to suggest both the harshness of family life and the potential to renew ourselves and those around us - it soon becomes evident that Tildan's bizarre entrances into the room carrying a variety of fresh grown, but otherwise ignored, root vegetables represent his yearning for something new.

Bradley's response to Shelley's probing is a symbolic act of violence more terrifying and dramatic than an actual assault, and paves the way for the destructive forces unleashed in the second half of the play, set the following morning.

Shelley's irony is replaced by fear as Vince finally returns from a drunk rampage, now a fully fledged member of his once-ostracised clan, adopting their mannerisms in a way that suggests that distance and the passing of time are no real escape from where we came from.

The pressure of remembrance, the false idealisation of the past and his desperate hope for change finally force Tildan to unearth the guilty secret at the centre of this tragic family. The rain has stopped, the sun offers its golden rays and there is a chance that the terrible past can be stopped from shaping the future of these people. Yet different family members respond in different ways - Shepherd refuses an easy renewal and redemption for problems that have been so buried.

This production of the play does justice to its ambiguities and real depth of characterisation. It reminded me of the power of live performance, especially in the moments of physical interaction between characters. Yet I couldn't help but feel that its portrayal of family life has been superseded by both theatre and television since its 1978 premiere and I suspect its revival is in part due to the National's coup of hiring two fine American actors, M Emmet Walsh (Dodge) and Lauren Ambrose (Shelley), who plays Claire in Six Feet Under. Still, it's well worth seeing.