Available until: Unknown
A Hunger Artist is based on a short story of the same title, written by Franz Kafka, streamed earlier in lockdown and now available on YouTube. It tells the story of a man who fasts for forty days, publicly. People come to see him, sometimes every day, either to observe this remarkable feat or to catch him out because he can’t really be going completely without food… can he?
Professional fasting was a form of entertainment in Kafka’s time. Forty days was typically the time spent fasting, though this was actually not for the artist’s benefit. The story – and also the play – examines, as many plays have done, what art is and what it’s really all about. Hunger artists do something most people would not choose to do, even supposing they could. But what is this form of art, or for that matter any form of art, really all about? Who is it about? The artist or the audience?
In more recent times (in 2003, so I don’t actually remember it), the magician David Blaine achieved a similar feat when he remained inside a small plexiglass box for forty-four days without eating. Public interest showed that while professional fasting might have dramatically reduced in popularity, it is still the kind of thing that will attract attention. And now, even in the medium of a play, it is fascinating to watch the character of the Hunger Artist and his physical and mental deterioration. As human beings, we still have the capacity to consider this entertainment and it’s a sobering thought.
There is also a very interesting observation made at the end of the play. I don’t think I should really tell you what it is as it would give too much away, but it really is something to think about.
The stage adaption was written by Carrieanne Vivianette, who also directs and appears as the Narrator, with additional writing by Neil Rathmell. Kafka’s short story has only a short section of dialogue, which happens right at the end of the story. It would have been possible to write an adaption that includes dialogue, allowing the hunger artist to speak and the Warder to interact with him, but I think the way it’s told here works brilliantly because it deprives the Hunger Artist of most of his voice. He could be seen as a sort of puppet, there to fulfil a purpose, and his own thoughts, feelings and ambitions are irrelevant to everyone. It is only the thoughts and feelings that others project onto him that matter. He is no longer himself, but a character in the drama the world has created for him.
Though I suppose you could actually say that all theatre is like that.
The stage is set up with the three characters arranged diagonally across the stage. The Warder is downstage right (or to the left of the front of the stage, from the audience point of view). The Narrator is upstage left (at the back, to the audience’s right). Between them, in the middle of the stage, is the Hunger Artist himself, occupying only a tiny rectangle of the stage. He’s been given his own space, but he’s also trapped; observed from all sides.
Much of the play is performed in silence, other than Duncan Evans’ original music. Often, there is not much to see, either. We watch the Narrator and the Warder, who watch the Hunger Artist, who is actually not doing very much. Yet it is powerful and, in a way, scary. He is living in a dangerous way, by choice. And for what?
For attention. But not in a bad way. He’s a performer, searching for his audience. Is a performer still a performer when they have no audience? Are actors still actors when the theatres are closed and they’re working in supermarkets or as delivery drivers instead?
Henry Petch plays the role of the Hunger Artist. He remains in his small space, his movements repetitive; his face initially blank. At first, he is strong, standing and moving easily; still at a stage where food is unnecessary and there are no physical signs that he feels its absence. As the play progresses, these physical movements become more difficult. There are more signs of physical suffering. His deterioration could be considered the narrative of the play, but I don’t see it that way. The Hunger Artist is a professional. He is doing something he’s done before and will do again. It is a cycle. The experience weakens him physically, but it does not change him fundamentally. His situation changes, but his desires do not. He learns nothing. He does question the rules under which he’s forced to operate; he thinks he could do more and fast for longer. But he does not question himself.
Character and narrative development are usually things we would usually want from a play, but their absence is part of the point of this story. There is almost a hypnotic quality in Henry’s movements. There is something in his performance that makes us want to keep watching and the slow physical and mental deterioration is very cleverly done. Richard Koslowsky’s Warder is a shadowy, creepy watching figure, devoid of any personal concern for the Hunger Artist, but perhaps his absence is more disturbing even than his presence. Carrieanne Vivianette is calm and detached but utterly present as she tells Kafka’s story.
It’s perhaps more of a documentary than a story, or perhaps a theatrical equivalent of reality TV, but lockdown has provided many examples of plays which aren’t strictly stories, but which still make a riveting live performance. A Hunger Artist, in a unique way, is another example of how wide-ranging theatre can be.