Sylvaine Strike Pays Homage to Sam Shepard in Curse of the Starving Class

Pictures: Antoine de Ras

Sylvaine Strike is presenting her latest work, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, at this year’s Stellenbosch-based Woordfees (March 2 to 11). She tells DIANE DE BEER about her connection with the late playwright Sam Shepard, this specific play which is perfect for this time, and how she works with her merry band of actors to establish her Fortune Cookie Theatre Company brand:

And now this riveting production is finally also playing at the Baxter Flipside from October 15 to 27. For production and performances alone it is sublime and then there’s Sam Shepard’s amazing words and story:


Curse Poster

“We meet the Tate Family at their worst.”

That’s director Sylvaine Strike speaking about her latest work, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, which premiered at the Stellenbosch-based Woordfees (March 2 to 11) before returning to Gauteng (still holding thumbs) and hopefully seasons around the country with this run at the Baxter Flipside the first of many.

“I’ve always felt that I completely get him,” she says about the American playwright who died last year and whose work is being looked at again as a result, with a few local productions planned, Honeyman’s Fools for Love recently at  The Market one of them.

When Strike was asked by Saartjie Botha, director of the Woordfees, to do something for this year’s festival, she suggested a Shepard play and together they decided that they wouldn’t adapt but put on the play as is. Strike giggles at the synchronicity when she points out that their first performance was scheduled – to the day – 40 years after it was first performed on Friday March 2.

This is Shepard’s most autobiographical work about his father, someone who features in different variations in many of his plays. Writing was the way he described dealing with his despairing childhood. “Part of him was growing on me. I could feel him taking over me. I could feel myself retreating,” says the son in Curse of the Starving Class. The father might be at the centre but the playwright is reaching wide, as he deals with the little people, those targeted most cruelly by the greed of the day, people who feel they have nowhere to turn.

Sound familiar? Think of the poverty numbers in our country, those targeted most brutally by the greed of the ruling classes. Even when written more than 40 years ago, it plays perfectly for our times and not only because of Donald Trump. Curse of the Starving Class circles around a dysfunctional family fighting the financial hardships, the disintegration of their family farm.

“It’s the perfect nucleus family, a mother, father and two children, a son and a daughter. And they’re completely dysfunctional,” says the director, conceding that this is all right up her street – especially on stage. How did they get there? What has happened to them? These are all questions she investigates. Even the door to their home is broken down and the father feels he can’t protect his family. That kind of desperation and neediness comes with its own set of intruders, waiting for easy prey.

For Strike, it was also time to walk a different road and the way her mind works, moving from Molière (The Miser and Tartuffe in the past few years) to Shepard makes complete sense – the choice seeming almost as dysfunctional as the family in the play. But it’s Strike and watching her work is a theatrical experience – completely magical.

But don’t let the title of the play mislead you. It’s not all about the horror of the hardship, there’s always hope and with Strike and Shepard, there’s always a smile. Even though Sherpard is scratching around in a family’s wounds, he never loses his sense of humour and Strike makes light of things where she can with movement and certain characters who in their lewdness are also laughable in a good way. It’s part of her branding, a hopefulness with something mystical hovering.

Neil McCarthy and Leila Henriques in Curse
Neil McCarthy and Leila Henriques in Curse of the Starving Class

Her cast is an indication of her intent. It’s a wildly talented bunch, including Neil McCarthy, Rob van Vuuren, Leila Henriques, Roberto Pombo, Anthony Coleman, Inge Crafford-Lazarus and Damon Berry, some of whom might strike a certain comical chord.

Playing the father is McCarthy, who returned to the stage with a flamboyant flourish for Tartuffe and asked Strike, following the hugely successful season and his reconnection with live performance, to consider him for her next work. She did, hence his casting as the father in a completely different role to his previous outing. And this time opposite Henriques, someone who was seen on stage more recently in the brilliant Florence . With her unique qualities, including a heart-wrenching vulnerability required for the mother in this particular story, it’s another casting coup. And the pair live up to all the promise magnificently and are a sheer joy to experience.

The two children – 17 and 15 – are played by relative newbies for this type of play, Pombo and Crafford-Lazarus, who were both put through strenuous auditions because of their pivotal part in the play which they passed with flying colours; with Van Vuuren, Coleman and Berry completing the cast with their own specific talents.

Nothing is ever random for this director and that’s what makes the casting so exciting and intriguing.

There’s something messy and chaotic about a Shepard play which is why the rhythms of these characters are so important. “It also gives the actors a sense of safety,” Strike says assuredly.

Music looms large in the rehearsal room. Shepard was as much a musician in his early days as a writer. It has been recorded that rhythm led him to character and with that in mind, Strike, always unique in her acting and performance methods, uses music to get her actors marching to the right beat. It’s extraordinary to watch as they work their way through a scene musically before they do it with dialogue. There’s as much meaning in the movement as there is in the text and that is as much Strike as it is Shepard.

Roberto Pombo and Inge Crafford-Lazarus
Roberto Pombo and Inge Crafford-Lazarus as the children of the family in Strike’s  Sam Shepard play

“I adore bluegrass music,” she says about her choices of Canadian band The Dead South and Australian Paul Kelly. “It is often profound,” she says about the genre, “despite its joviality and upbeat rhythms. Shepard’s writing is musical, he himself was a percussionist, and adored music, from Dixieland to Dizzy Gillespie – he was a great lover of jazz, and his work in many ways reminds one of jazz compositions. It is unpredictable, and yet impeccably structured.”

It is exactly the way she thinks about theatre and why she feels this bond. Listening and watching just a few scenes in early rehearsals, already it is the emotions that come pouring out and engulf you. That’s where the heart of this work lies.

Other influences include the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, both of whom hold a certain desolation and deep feelings of loss.

Holding all of this together is her trademark and where Strike’s genius comes into play – gloriously.