In the last half-hour of Buried Child, the audience gets to see a ‘symbolic rape’, a character metamorphosing into an ancestor, a man taunted by having his wooden leg stolen, a description of a murder and the exhumation of a decaying corpse, the buried child of the title-all that in about half an hour. As that’s only a third of the play, watching that costs you about £1.67. Surely this can’t fail?
It does. Let’s start with the script of this 1978 play by Sam Shepard, set in a decaying farm in Illinois. It’s certainly visceral, the feeling of an isolated, nerve-prodding family is there in spades, but as dialogue it’s boring: knarled, pretentious, sub-Pinterian prose-poetry. Next, the plot is full of heavy-handed, vaguely ritualistic and alarmingly humourless symbolism, none of which really means anything: a man walks into a yard and finds corn where none has grown in years with whose leves he then covers his sleeping father, his brother loves shaving people against their will, and so on. Strangely, for all the stuff that happens (there’s some incest in there as well), it’s actually quite boring, and chaotically structured: a large chunk of the first act is a dull expository monologue about a character who died years before, who nobody ever really mentions again. So why have the monologue? To spend several minutes telling us that old farmer’s wives in the middle of nowhere can be racist, that some sons are more clever than others, and that some people die young surprisingly and it’s rather sad, it seems. This must be the commentary about the American Dream the Wikipedia article for the play talks about.
The staging is better than the play deserves: Tom Palmer was still reading his lines off a script in the press preview but his and Sam Kennedy’s performances had the right level of constrained anger and good American accents; Anna Popplewell made the best of by far the worst-written part. Sean O’Reilly tried to match his performance to the actors playing his brother and father but an uneven accent hampered his performance. Harriet Madeley as Shelly, an outsider from California entering the tense family home, slyly tailored her acting in a part with dialogue that felt like it came from a different play to feel very different to the other actors.
In short, if you like this play, or think you’d respond to the style of writing, the staging is perfectly competent and it’s certainly not forgettable. Otherwise, think twice.