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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Buried Child
Lyttelton Theatre   Autumn 2004

Sam Shepard's 1978 drama is by far his best, and one of the dozen or so best plays in the American repertoire. But you wouldn't know it from this very disappointing National Theatre revival.

Matthew Warchus has directed other Shepard plays and considers himself a friend of the author. But there is little indication that he, anyone onstage or anyone else behind the scenes has any understanding of what this play is about.

A young man visits his grandparents on their Illinois farm, expecting to rediscover a romanticised Norman Rockwell portrait of middle America.

Instead he finds a family defined by disease and decay. Grandfather is dying, grandmother spends her days drinking with the local priest, father is brain-damaged and uncle a mad cripple.

The decay is eventually traced to a terrible crime in the past, and particularly to the group decision to deny and try to forget that it ever happened.

First confused, then repelled, the young man eventually senses that he cannot turn his back on this corrupted heritage, and his acceptance - along with the literal unearthing of the past - signals a hint of hope for the future.

Even that brief outline will tell you that the play has a lot to say about family, about the inescapability of the past, about self-acceptance and forgiveness (echoes of O'Neill, anyone?).

It also offers an unforced,and therefore particularly powerful metaphor for the American national impulse toward elective amnesia about the sins of its past, and the suggestion that it is only by reconnecting with its roots, however damaged, that the culture can be healthy.

And you couldn't guess any of that from this misconceived and totally unevocative production, which doesn't hint at the metaphor or even make much sense of the dissection of family dynamics.

Almost every actor has been directed in a way that fights the text rather than bringing it to life. As the grandfather, M. Emmet Walsh is far too full of coarse vitality for a dying man, while Brendan Coyle is too normal as the disconnected father.

Elizabeth Franz as the grandmother must play two key scenes from offstage, but she merely yells her lines with all the reality of an actress sitting comfortably in the wings reading a script.

Sam Troughton brings nothing at all to the grandson, and his biggest scene, a poetic expression of his discovery of his tie to the past, is shouted in what plays like a bad audition for the role of Stanley Kowalski.

Rob Howell's set is far too big and empty for a farmhouse, and the furniture too new to suggest the family's decay. And every 'meaningful' moment in the script is underlined by portentous music by Gary Yershon in a manner that would embarrass a soap opera.

Despite being misdirected, M. Emmet Walsh does bring some life to the proceedings, as does Lauren Ambrose as the grandson's girlfriend.

But they're acting in a vacuum. Most of the production is without any meaning or power, and the few moments that work are wrongheaded.

Take, for example, the darkly comic moment when the girl is left alone with the family, and the one-legged uncle puts his fingers in her mouth, in a feeble gesture at intimacy that is clearly a sad betrayal of his impotence. 

Warchus directs Sean Murray to play the scene with real menace and hold the moment so long that it becomes a real violation and very unpleasant for the audience. It is, in fact, one of the most powerful scenes in the production. But it has nothing whatever to do with what the play is about.

This review may be taking on the tone of 'I interpret the play differently and therefore don't like the way they did it'. But my point is that they don't seem to have interpreted it at all.

You would be hard-pressed to guess from this empty revival that the play had any meaning or power. And that is a real failure.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Buried Child - National Theatre 2004

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