When Sam Shepard wrote his Pulitzer-winning play in 1978, he was giving voice to America’s voiceless, reminding his country of the forgotten parts of its society. The once prosperous, now dying Illinois farmstead in which the action takes place provided an alternative to the American Dream narrative — against which almost every story featuring an American is judged.
But, today, and with this New Group revival of the play starring Ed Harris as a world-weary, couch-bound farmer Dodge and Harris’s real-life spouse Amy Madigan as his terrifyingly pitiless wife Halie, no one can claim the isolated, Jesus-loving demographic that these two represent are either forgotten or voiceless. At least, not now that they are credited with supplying Donald Trump with much of the momentum that is handing him the White House keys in January.
So, for non-American audiences of this production — previously a hit off-Broadway — the curiosity that goes with being introduced to a culturally and financially impoverished part of the world’s richest country, now has the added oddity that they are also the most influential demographic in the world.
That the play never leaves the decaying living room in which Dodge coughs, smokes and watches TV, only adds to this new incongruity.
Scott Elliott’s slow-burn of a production is anchored by the immobile Dodge whom Harris imbues with the grizzled good humour of a man reconciled to life having turned out a good deal worse than it might have done. Quite how much worse emerges inexorably. Dodge’s two grown-up, redneck sons (Barnaby Kay and Gary Shelford) are unhinged, possibly by the family secret that gives the play its title, but also because isolation does that to people.
It is with the arrival of grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and his LA girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Hope) that Shepard finds his tension, taking a leaf or three from Pinter. Rather like Ruth in The Homecoming, Shelly overcomes a threat posed by primitive, sexually coiled men. It’s a role to which British actor Hope brings a good deal of unexpected comic timing. It’s through Shelly’s eyes that the dysfunctional condition of this family grows both darker and more vivid.
Does the play deserve its reputation as a modern classic? I have my doubts. The restraint of earlier scenes is replaced by a heightened, no-holds-barred drama that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Still, as an ensemble piece, the acting is the best I’ve seen all year.
Harold Pinter Theatre
You can count on one hand the number of actors with the stage presence to turn something as inert as fishing into a West End hit. Mark Rylance is one of them.
Even though this play — co-written by Rylance and prose poet Louis Jenkins, and directed by Rylance’s wife Claire van Kampen — is set on a frozen Minnesota lake, Rylance is nevertheless swathed in enough cold weather gear to be described as overdressed.
He plays Ron, the somewhat annoying companion of amateur ice fisherman Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) for whom sitting over ice in freezing temperatures waiting for a fish to bite appears to be therapy for some kind of mid-life crisis. Not that we get much back-story about these two. But there is a sense that each is on the run from some trauma, which is almost as much as you need to know.
The inspiration behind this self-consciously barmy one-and-a-half hours is Jenkins’s poetry from which Rylance has quoted at various awards ceremonies, usually to the bemusement of those present. Expect more of that. Much fun is had relating the surrealism of life in well-below freezing temperatures. Ron enjoys driving nails into wood using a frozen banana, and watching domestic gas and electricity meters spin madly in the depths of winter is, well, a gas.
But as the show subverts theatrical conventions with stage-hands appearing on set, the sense of playfulness becomes self-indulgent. For what is the point of undermining a convention that is rejected from the start?