Left – Jacqy Phililps and Hannah Norris. Cover – Ron Haddrick, Jacqy Phillips and Patrick Graham. Photos – Shane Reid
Buried Child should be put six feet underground and left there. This latest offering by the State Theatre Company of SA is an emotionally violent, poorly acted two hours of pain.
The premise of the play is that buried secrets are ever-present in our psyches. The result is sickness and decay. The family has made a pact never to speak of the secret, yet they cannot help themselves. We do not watch the family disintegrate – it is long beyond that point. The hostility is set in the opening scene between Dodge, the aged patriarch sitting on his sofa, swigging from the whiskey bottle hiding beneath the cushions, and his wife Halie, yelling from Upstairs, her offstage sanctuary where the walls are covered in pictures of family from a happier time. Their animosity is a source of humour in this first, promising scene. The old man feels harassed by his irritating wife, a presence he cannot be rid of and which will give him no peace. Within a few minutes, the audience also wants to silence the voice from Upstairs.
Soon enough, we meet Tilden, their eldest son who suffers from a mental slowness that is never named. He has been farming in the barren backyard, and brings in a harvest of corn, that his parents are insistent could not have grown Out Back. Tilden is forbidden to ever go Out Back again.
At the door appears Vince, Tilden’s son, and Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly. Shelly greets the old homestead with hysterical laughter, and Vince with embarrassed eagerness to see his old home and his family, after so long away.
His family doesn’t recognise him. The significance of this drawn-out plot twist failed to find any meaning. Vince, played by Tim Overton, huffs and puffs around the stage, verging on hysterics as he tries to make his family acknowledge their connection.
This is one example of the unvaried emotional level of the production. The characters of Vince, Halie and Bradley functioned at only one level throughout – heightened animosity and stress. Vince’s screeching is exhausting and constant, and we’re left wondering if this is the fault of the script or its interpretation. Throughout the play, there is no reprieve from the constant emotional turmoil, which while it represents the state of minds overshadowed by buried secrets, it is not developed in order to find meaning.
And this is the crux of the problem – the absence of reasoning and explanation. It is not enough to present the argument that hidden secrets drive people crazy and tear families apart. There must be points of proof to follow to back up this assertion on which the whole play rests. The lack of this makes the action of the play pointless. We do not understand why we’re being subjected to this. Had I not had the job of reviewing the play, I would have left long before intermission.
The actors’ performances did little to make up for the shortcomings of the text. The few standout performers held the show together, providing a lower pitch that was easier on the ear. Ron Haddrick as Dodge is endearing, consistent and the most believable. His delivery avoided the pitfalls of accent variation and loss, and his emphasis was more naturalistic. Rather than laying every word down like a precious fragment of gospel, he just spoke, his words flowing from a tired old man who doesn’t give a damn anymore. He’s alive because he hasn’t died yet, and apart from his bottle of whiskey, he doesn’t care for anything. His humour always hits its mark, lightening the dark tones.
Nicholas Garsden, as the slow and enigmatic Tilden, provides the other strong performance. His pace is slower than the rest, plodding through life like a donkey, and just as stubbornly. He is drawn Out Back, searching for what he knows he will find. His interaction with his father, Dodge, highlights the family tensions, yet also creates sweet moments between a father and his son, as two very different people try to understand each other and find the support they need.
Jacqy Phillips plays the acidic mother Halie, hiding her own pain behind a wall of hostility towards her husband and sons, while flaunting her affair with the local priest. If this is meant to suggest that Halie seeks escape and healing in the arms of god, it stops before it draws any conclusions. Phillip’s performance is particularly disappointing. Her accent oscillates from Southerner to New Yorker to an Irishwoman with the space of three sentences. Her movement is wooden and at contrast with her character. She strides the stage as if it’s a cat-walk, her femme fatale movements at odds with her harsh, demanding, stereotypically nagging wifely character.
Shelley also, played by Hannah Norris, is out of place and over-acted, though toned down in comparison to Vince and Halie. Her positive emotional reaction toward the men of the family is at odds to her negative response to Halie. And, in keeping with the play as a whole, this is not explained. Given the actions of the men and the pain of the mother, Shelley’s sympathies lie in a confusing direction.
Mary Moore’s dilapidated set is a starkly brilliant backdrop for this broken world. Moore’s use of strong, rugged beams as a frame for high windows with broken slatting is well emphasised by the barren space behind. The stage is gutted, the wings removed, so we can see through the whole set – here at least there are no secrets. However the lighting, constant washes of blue, pink, yellow, detract from the visual spectacle. The few times when the stage is lit without a colour is when it appears at its best, almost like a sepia photograph in which the harsh and dry characters strike their poses.
After the show, I speak to a woman who left at intermission because she couldn’t bear the violence. This statement helped explain my own reaction to the show – distress at the constant emotional attacks. I have never been in so much pain throughout a performance. Shepard’s script, David Mealor’s direction and the actor’s intensity left us no moment in which to relax, and no hope for humanity.
State Theatre Company of South Australia presents
by Sam Shepard
Director David Mealor
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse
Dates: 9 September – 2 October, 2011