Sam Shepard’s ‘The Curse of the Starving Class’

Saw the above play in preview at the Abbey last night. I was really happy about this as a National Theatre presentation. It’s demanding, gritty, not easy viewing at times, with a stunning script (as one might expect from Shepard). Scarcely four minutes into the play, Wesley, the pitiful son in a highly dysfunctional family, launches into the kind of soliloquy one might expect at the mid-point in a play like this. But no, it worked perfectly in streaming frustration, in a language that was as poetic as it was dramatic. The play first appeared in 1975 and is directed here by Jimmy Fay.

This may be familiar Shepard territory to some: family, roots, origins, the land, the failure of the American Dream. Somehow though, the theatrics of dispossession still seemed remarkably fresh to me in dramatic terms. Take one mother and one father, the former desperate to leave their beat-up farmstead in the middle of nowhere, conniving secretly to sell up and get away to Europe (where they have history, she tells her children), the latter desperate to escape also, but bound by his own alcoholism and tripped up by its follies. Their offspring, a girl having her first period, and a boy, are caught in the middle of a maelstrom of frustration, alcoholism, and -literally – food-deprivation if not outright starvation. The burly green fridge in the bare kitchen is almost part of the Dramatis Personae by the end of the play, so often is it referred to, or opened (always empty except on one occasion). When Wesley, the son, finds it stocked to capacity after his mother returns from a night away with a dubious ‘lawyer’ who promises to deliver on her dream of selling up, he gorges and gorges – all inarticulate, mumbling infantilism – stuffing and spilling and pouring until the fridge is empty again. The thing is, with Shepard, there’s no filling up, ever. His characters are hungry and remain so.

I’ve sometimes been disappointed by some of the Abbey’s recent offerings. Not, I hasten to add, the brilliant McPhearson or Marina Carr or Nancy Harris. But there’s a tendency to sometimes pull out the old familiar feathers to tickle the audience, but a break from some of the canonical plays and stalwart productions is needed. Work like Shepards might not please everybody. There will be some comment on the fact that young Wesley yanks out his penis in a full-frontal audience display within the first half hour and then turns his back to urinate on his sister Emma’s school project. One woman remarked to me at the interval that ‘We’ve had periods and penises. What next?’ – which seems very much beside the point. This is great drama, the kind of work that only the Abbey can accommodate (in terms of audience capacity).

On the other hand, their upcoming play to run right through the Theatre Festival and on to November is the fabulous ‘Juno and the Paycock’, part of the canon that I for one can never absorb too much of.

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