Lockdown review: The Hunger Artist

An “absurdist adaptation of Kafka” by CVIV Arts, The Hunger Artist opens with three people brightly lit on a stage with wooden flooring. A chalk board detailing “warder” and “day” suggests some form of prison.

There is a man in a chalked square, stretching. An observer off to the right. No one speaks for a full five minutes What is hsppening? Where are we? Who are these people?

The last time I watched Kafka live was in the deeply misguided The Trial at the Young Vic which failed to capture the complexity of his greatest and most accessible work. Here, as in The Trial, Kafka explores the political and the human.

Through mime, music (weirdly atmospheric, by Duncan Evans, surely inspired in part by Leonard Cohen), effects (stomping, scratching), and occasional passages of speech, we watch The Hunger Artist as spectacle over the course of an hour.

The Hunger Artist live. Image credit: MJH Studio.
The Hunger Artist live. Image credit: MJH Studio.

This is the debut production of CVIV Arts: its stage run cut short by a circumstance that could be described as political. A government-sanctioned closure of live performance. Bringing this show to your screen for free, via their website or YouTube, a gesture of defiance.

Filmed with one static camera, without close-ups, the effect is to make the viewer an uncomfortable participant of the horror which unfolds before them. Watching what is ultimately a futile gesture without ever understanding the Artist’s motivation.

Caged, a figure of fascination and the grotesque, The Hunger Artist stands for, what? Adversity, and a triumph over it? An exploration of the metaphysical? The voyeuristic need to exploit suffering?

When we think of “hunger” we may call to mind both Third World famine and hunger strikes as political statement. But in Kafka’s eyes, hunger takes the form of art. A form this production exploits in movement and music, as we watch the Artist (Henry Petch) through the gaze of the Narrator (Carrieanne Vivianette).

Screencap from The Hunger Artist
Screencap from The Hunger Artist

This Artist, exhibited to the limits of his endurance, a clock by his side, declines slowly outside of the public gaze. Tastes have changed, and just as crowds once thronged to watch public executions then tired of them, so they have moved to other things.

As the Warder (Richard Koslowsky) chats about human nature, orchestrating the event, the Artist curls up on his straw, in the warmth of his exhaustion and slow physical failure. He does not speak until the half-way point, a primal scream.

As nothing much happens within The Hunger Artist, we can project our own meaning on to the play before us. Kafka’s original has been co-adapted (with Neil Rathmell) and directed by Vivianette.

I found The Hunger Artist pulled me in and out from what was unfolding on screen. I felt occasionally frustrated, often catching the odd word in between disengaging of my attention. The Narrator’s speech evokes Lucky’s in Waiting for Godot, vomiting out her words, is strong and well-delivered.

Ultimately, an interesting piece of absurdist action which loses some power on film, but which has enough to keep this audience member watching despite the glacial pace.

What do you think?

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