Sam Shepard breathes again – theatre review.

Posted: July 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Doodsnikke.

A farming family’s tragic, horrific, and complete demise – by their own design – lies at the heart of Sam Shepard’s play, Buried Child, which has been translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha.  Director Janice Honeyman has cleverly assembled a perfectly balanced cast, comprising of experienced actors, and exciting young guns, to create a gripping piece of theatre.

Shepard’s Pulitzer prize-winning play is considered one of his finest works. It tells the story of a Midwestern American family’s complete disintegration due to an Oedipal indiscretion, and eventual murder, which they try to hide from the world through lies and denial.  Their demise is, in part, symbolic of the disintegration of the American Dream. The husband is the last in the line of patriarchs who, he believes, let down his family, his lineage, his land and himself.

Saartjie Botha’s Afrikaans translation sets the story in South Africa during the 90’s.  Gys de Villiers is Dodge, the failed farmer, father, and husband of a philandering, bible-punching wife. He is drinking himself to death on his couch. His wife, played by Anna-Mart van der Merwe, incessantly bullies him into even further emasculation. He has two sons, Bradley who is physically challenged, played by Albert Pretorius, and the mentally challenged Tilden, played by Oscar Petersen.  In walks Tilden’s long lost son, ready to re-introduce himself and his girlfriend, to his family.  Tilden appears not to recognise his son and slowly the horror of the family’s secret is revealed.

Gys de Villiers is superb as Dodge, a once proud man who so effectively disintegrates before our eyes that we begin to ponder whether he has always been a ghost.  This mixture of surrealism and realism is accentuated when Vince’s girlfriend Shelley, played with a crisp spunkiness by Thenjiwe Stemela, remarks that she feels like the only person alive in the house.  The family has become the skeletons in its own closet. This feeling is perpetuated by Dodge’s lament that he has seized to matter as he is just one in a line of cadavers. In Doodsnikke it becomes clear that the living and the dead are inextricably bound. Shelly is the catalyst which sets in motion the family’s inevitable confrontation of the truth.

Anna Mart’s performance as the bitter and racist wife is simply brilliant, perhaps one of her finest, most convincing, roles yet.  Her command of Afrikaans and her presence as a consummate actress is impressive.  In a tragic-comic manner, her character totters in and out of insanity as she flirts with the local preacher, while her family is imploding. She has turned to religion to mask her infidelity and her role in the family’s ugly secret.  She bullies her husband to hide her own immense failure as a mother and a wife.

Tilden wanders into the house with arms full of beautiful corn and fresh carrots which he says he has harvested from the back.  Dodge says his land has lain barren for years. Again surrealism, and a flickering of dark humour, creeps in as we ponder whether the land is barren or not. It becomes clear that Dodge has literally jailed himself in his house which is disintegrating with him. Oscar Peterson fine performance as the mentally challenged son evokes equal amounts of pity and revulsion.

Patrick Curtis’ stage design depicts the inside of an old farmhouse.  A battered old couch becomes the centre of the action. The inside of the wife’s bedroom is filled with crucifixes. Combined with Mannie Manim’s intuitive lighting, the house itself becomes a grotesque, and tragic, living and breathing character in the play.

Albert Pretorius’s portrayal of the maniacal Bradley is disturbing and darkly comic. The scene where he sticks his hand into Shelley’s mouth, despite its understated simplicity, equates to rape.

In Travis Snyders’ character as the young Vince, we want to believe in renewal and rebirth for the land, and the house, and the family.  But we are can’t help but wonder what will become of the next generation of this tragic family.

Sam Shepard’s writing is controlled and filled with beautiful and thought-provoking metaphors. And whilst the director did a fine job to recreate the play as a South African piece, for me the strongest message I found in this work, is the reminder of our universal frailty as human beings. Our flaws, our weakest moments, and our animalist lack of self-control and inability to allow reasoning to season our deeds.  And then our remorse, which ultimately destroys the fragile mind.  Aldous Huxley says it best in Brave New World, “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. Rolling around in the muck is not the best way of getting clean”.

Astrid Stark

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