We’ve just come back from seeing 66-year old Hollywood veteran Ed Harris star in his West End debut in Buried Child at the Trafalgar Studios, and what a pleasure it was! Ed Harris’ intensity and aplomb on stage are riveting. It would have been worth the visit just for his acting alone, but as it happens all the other talented actors involved were giving their best too. Well, and can’t really go wrong with a Pulitzer-prize winning play like this that is about the breakdown of the American Dream and its values in rural 1970s America, when most family-run farms descended into poverty and despair due to economic slowdown and the consolidation of the market with a few hundred big players ruling the game. To add to it, it’s so cool that Ed is starring with his wife, Amy Madigan, as he did on various occasions before, both on stage and on screen. He’s received four Academy Award nominations, his wife one, and they both won a Golden Globe. (My wife and I work together, too, as legal and compliance consultants, but it does not feel quite as cool, to be frank.)
Sam Shepard’s 1978 play, which immediately propelled him to stardom, does not have much of a plot. There is only one setting. A dirty, disintegrating farmhouse in rural Illinois is the setting for all three acts. The ‘plot’ is mainly developed through the stories being told about the dark past of the family and through the conversations. The main character, Dodge, is a dying, resigned, septuagenarian alcoholic who spends his last days on his sofa, watching television, drinking from a whisky bottle hidden in the sofa, and who sees himself as a miserable failure. He has not planted any crops for 30 years. Later in the play we find out that he used to be an all-American boy, successful farmer, and – in his early years – a top sportsman (on a side note: Ed Harris also used to be a top sportsman as a young man, but has aged rather quickly, now playing dying blokes in their seventies convincingly without too much make-up).
It has a nice touch that Ed is sitting on the sofa already, when the members of the audience are taking their seats, pretending to be asleep at first, then lighting a cigarette and just looking rather unhappy. We were sitting in the middle of the third row and it felt great to see this legend pre-play from such a short distance, clearly enjoying himself pretending to be grumpy. I’ve always liked Ed Harris. Didn’t think too much of most of the movies he was in, but his great acting, chiselled face, athletic looks, air of authority, abstinence, rigidity, determination, and absolute self-confidence always got me. A proper tough-guy uber-dude. What’s not to like.
Dodge’s sanctimonious wife, Halie, many years ago, had given birth to a child of her and Dodge’s son, Tilden, a child/grandchild which Dodge later on had killed and buried in the backyard, because it was bringing shame on the family as “everybody knew”. Back then the family was still well-off and “all [they] needed to do was to ride it out”. Halie leaves for church half way through the first act, and it soon becomes clear that she is having an affair with the priest.
Tilden, who has just returned from New Mexico after an ‘incident’ is clearly mentally unwell, behaves like a weird child, unable to take care of himself.
Bradley, the other son, has lost his leg in a chainsaw accident and also isn’t able to carry on the family business.
Then enter Vince and Shelly (both characters roughly 20 years of age), played by the phenomenal Jeremy Irvine from Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and the dazzling and incredibly talented Charlotte Hope of Game of Thrones fame, both in their West End debuts. While Ed’s impersonation of Dodge is sometimes lacking vigour and while the character itself is clearly not likely to incite excitement or thrill, it is those two characters that bring all the energy to the play. Vince is Dodge’s grandson, Tilden’s son, Shelly his (Vince’s) chirpy, cheerful, chatty, pretty, sharp-minded and equally sharp-tongued girlfriend, the impersonation of the American dream, at least in comparison with this family.
Vince’s grandfather and father do not recognise him. Shelly is at first scared of Vince’s family, but soon intrigued by the bizarre situation she finds herself in. She starts digging for the truth behind this desolate family and at the end of the last act, she gets to the bottom of things, not without plenty of screaming, shouting, chaos, and terror.
What’s so impressive about this play and this particular production, is most of all how they manage to make the audience laugh and giggle throughout most of the scenes, it doesn’t feel heavy and dark during most scenes. But at the same time this play comes in no way short of the Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, or Tennessee Williams all-time-greats in terms of depth. Some critics of this production take the view that it has missed the point by doing exactly that, by not being all bleak and dark and heavy, or by providing plenty of comical moments instead of dark, elusive pointers to the absurdity of the situation. I would not agree with that. It’s a perfect mix of light and dark. A true delight.