“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” ― Eli Khamarov
“There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.” ― John Green
Every ‘civilization’ that has ever existed has had to wrestle with two fundamental questions regarding poverty: who is ultimately to blame for it and what action should be taken. For most right-wing governments, the ‘poor’ themselves are at fault and their circumstances are not a result of the State’s own socio-economic policies that have directly contributed to- and exacerbated the effects of poverty on the disenfranchised. In Starved ― which is written by Michael Black and directed by Matt Strachan ― we meet a young couple who are living in a ‘squat’.
Michael Black as ‘the Lad’ is the only person ‘allowed’ outside the house and it’s his ‘duty’ to requisition ‘supplies’ any way he can. Meanwhile, ‘The Lass’ (Alana Connaughton) stays indoors and its her ‘responsibility’ is to keep the place tidy. Neither party, for one reason or another, are able to fufil their ‘duties’ to their utmost.
But while ‘the Lad’, for better or worse, gets to see the outside world regularly, the only outlet for ‘the Lass’ beyond the four walls is her phone, which she’s agreed should ‘only’ be used for emergencies… As a couple who want to keep their respective pasts at arm’s length, their fear is such that they don’t even attempt to ‘sign on’ for Universal Credit, since where they live would be recorded and they could potentially be tracked down by others.
Living in each other’s company for seven days a week takes its toll – especially as they have no ‘creature comforts’ to speak of, not even a television to distract them from their hunger and circumstances.
What little money they do have to spend is used for items that can’t be stolen – tobacco and alcohol. One could argue that this for them is a vice and the money could be spent on other things. But like the homeless who live on the streets, we see that the alcohol is the only thing that numbs their despair and makes their ‘existence’ bearable. As for how they were able to acquire any money in the first place, it becomes a source of guilt for ‘the Lass’ – as well as a means to hurt her…
The way the set is constructed – a cross between a web and a ‘cat’s cradle – the claustrophobic nature of the surroundings is emphasized. And while the couple’s seclusion was meant to protect them from their past, their ‘removal’ from the fabric of society is a double-edged sword that hurts them more in the long run than it ‘shields’ them.
In lesser hands, ‘Lad’ and ‘Lass’ would be depicted as one-dimensional ‘Wayne’ and ‘Waynetta’ stereotypes. But Connaughton and Black flesh out the multi-faceted aspects of the characters and have real chemistry together. They also show that when one has very little – both materially and of dignity – it’s the little things that are all-important.
In a very real sense, Starved is very much cut from the same cloth as Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, with the principal characters ‘trapped’ in a room and driving each other crazy. But in terms of comparisons with more up-to-date plays, Oli Forsyth’s Kings comes to mind (about a group of homeless people on the streets of London) – a narrative played out without sentimentality, and ‘flesh-and-blood’ characters with moments of anger and despair, as well as aspirations.
At one juncture in the play, ‘the Lass’ asks: “What’s it like outside?” – highlighting the fact that as a couple, they live a ‘life’ apart from the rest of society. Secluded. ‘Incarcerated’. Forgotten about. If we take the stance of the Establishment, their circumstancs doesn’t matter – out of sight, out of mind…
© Michael Davis 2019
Starved runs at Hope Theatre, London until 3rd August.