Curse of the Starving Class

Ciarán O'Brien in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Curse of the Starving Class' by Sam Shepard. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Ciarán O'Brien in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Curse of the Starving Class' by Sam Shepard. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Joe Hanley and Rose O'Loughlin in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Curse of the Starving Class' by Sam Shepard. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Joe Hanley and Rose O'Loughlin in the Abbey Theatre production of 'Curse of the Starving Class' by Sam Shepard. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

It’s not often a lamb gets to upstage a penis, but in Jimmy Fay’s production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class (1978), this succession of surprise appearances is crucial to establishing the performance’s unnerving blend of humour and carnality.

Shortly after the play opens on this dysfunctional American family, who fight over everything from a lack of food to the desire to escape, son Wesley (Ciarán O’Brien) intervenes in an antsy interaction between his mother Ella (Irvine) and younger sister Emma (O’Loughlin), by urinating on the latter’s project on how to dissect a chicken. The audience, both shocked and amused, gasps and laughs, and this double-edged pattern is pretty much repeated throughout the course of the evening. When Wesley later brings a real lamb into the kitchen, he overshadows his own self-exposure, but confirms everything to be oddly witty, wild and unpredictable in this world.

The ‘curse’ in the title of Shepard’s play refers to everything from Emma’s period, which she has just got for the first time as the play begins, to the family’s lack of food, money and mobility. Further to these specifics, it resonates with the tragic flaw inherited from ancient Greek theatre, that damns whole families and pressures action towards inevitable disaster. In the release of energy occasioned by the butchery of animals and humans, there is a Bacchic quality to Shepard’s play, but here the movement of the plot is too irregular and uneven to be considered simply cathartic. The stage may be trashed by the end, but we are left feeling more frustrated and disorientated than comfortably purged.

Photo: Ros KavanaghWhile the production gets off to a bit of a shaky start with the cast struggling to find the bite in the dialogue, the piece builds in confidence. Although she is significantly older than her pubescent character, O’Loughlin captures well Emma’s naiveté and fire. Playing absentee father Weston returned home, Joe Hanley brilliantly conveys the schizophrenic register of the play, flitting between fury, defeat, and relative refinement. While O’Brien turns out a fine performance as Wes, his character is written to seem little more than a symptom of his father’s brutish influence.

In his programme note, Roddy Doyle draws attention to the way words are hammered to the page in Shepard’s text. While this might be the case by and large, there are times too when the dialogue tends to drift, especially on either side of the interval, and despair risks losing rather than holding our attention. The struggle to communicate has its own internal logic, with characters straining to relate to each other. But at other points it feels like there is room to excavate further the lighter and darker shades of Shepard’s world, by more determinedly mining the dynamic border between realism and absurdism.

Unlike the Irish audience who laugh because they now know better, the adults in Shepard’s play believe that property is all. Manic Ella, who has absorbed the rhetoric of her lawyer friend Taylor (Oates), says without irony: ”Everyone wants a piece of land. It's the only sure investment. It can never depreciate like a car or a washing machine. Land will double its value in ten years. In less than that. Land is going up every day.” The family makes half-hearted efforts to maintain their shoddy space, and husband and wife both try to sell the building behind each other’s back.

Despite this obsession with material goods, objects carry contradictory, over-determined meanings. So a fridge becomes something of an oracle to which people repeatedly turn for sustenance, despite the knowledge that it’s usually empty, and the centrally placed kitchen table is where Ella and Weston lie down to rest at different stages. Related to this schema of food and tables, consumption is a troubled concept: the fridge is bare when the play opens, and by the end its contents have been devoured and spewed all over the stage. The lamb, to which the audience at least has become attached, is slaughtered and skinned.

On a number of occasions we are reminded that the house is without a front door, a symbol of the false distinction characters try to make between inside and outside worlds, confinement and freedom, America and Europe. Under Brian Vahey’s design, however, the entire set is a thin wooden frame, which reveals the stage all around it; the backdrop only subtly lit with blue and red washes by Paul Keogan. When characters dream of escape, or fantasise about what’s happening elsewhere, on one level the design suggests that there is no difference between ‘here’ and ‘there’ at all. But it also underscores the theatricality of the whole dilemma, not to mention its long history of exploration within the theatre, and in Shepard’s oeuvre in particular. This open plan carries the risk of sacrificing the claustrophobic intensity that a more confined set would create.

Then again, in this drama the balance keeps dipping between self-reflexivity and sincerity. Perhaps Weston captures this bind best when he reminds his son, who is desperately trying to comprehend him: ”You can watch me all you want to. You won’t find out a thing.”

Fintan Walsh

  • Review
  • Theatre

Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard

27 Aug – 10 Sept, 2011

Produced by Abbey Theatre
In Abbey Theatre

Directed by Jimmy Fay

Set Design: Brian Vahey

Lighting Design: Paul Keogan

Costume Design: Joan Bergin

Composer: Philip Stewart

With: Phelim Drew, Joe Hanley, Andrea Irvine, Laurence Kinlan, Ronan Leahy, Ciarán O’Brien, Gerry O’Brien, Rose O’Loughlin and Enda Oates