Watching Curse of the Starving Class at the Royal Lyceum reminded me of two famous adages: a) Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language and b) never work with animals. But more on those in a moment.
Curse, written by acclaimed writer and actor Sam Shepard, follows the Tate family. The father is an abusive drunk who owes more money than he realises, the mother dreams of escape to a mystical land of high culture called ‘Europe’, the daughter hopes to use her wits to rise above her family’s position in life and the son is pining for a version of ‘America’ he thinks lost.
Shepard’s play is a sarcastic take on the American Dream, and it exists on a dual plane of realism and symbolism. Director Mark Thomson shows a strong hand at directing the piece and manages to create moments that are convincing in either style, but he doesn’t quite crack capturing both at the same time. It is still a solid production that highlights Shepard’s themes and humour.
It is also well acted. The supporting players were all strong, making characters that are glorified cameos into interesting people. But this is really about the four members of the Tate family, and all four actors are quite good, creating the family from hell that believe they are normal. Only their faulty accents, which were a mixture Southern American and Texan intonations rather than the required Southern Californian sound (of which I’m rather an expert on), stood out.
A glance at the interviews in the programme show how much respect the cast and Thomson have for Shepard’s writing, which, in a roundabout way, is the production’s greatest flaw. Half of the strength of the play comes in how the characters use language to acquire and maintain power. Thomson and his cast, however, are so enamoured with the words that they allow every syllable to be heard, changing the delivery of the text.
There is a difference in how the average American and British person converses in English. By taking a British stance on Shepard’s language, much of the inflections, context and humour that are intended are lost.
One must also make mention of the live lamb that is used on stage. Yes, the script asks for it, but surely it could have been handled a bit better. The audience took much more delight in watching the animal than it did in the actors, and the biggest laughs came when the poor thing kept peeking over the fence to look at the audience or ‘spoke’ at inopportune moments.
It may not be up to everyone’s taste, but Curse is still a good piece of theatre. For a play written during the financial hardships of the seventies, it feels rather pertinent with its themes of financial failure. I guess it also reflects how we as a society can learn from a third popular adage: those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Playing at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh until April 11, 2009.
Filed under: Edinburgh-based theatre productions |