Arcola Theatre, London – until 21 December 2019
What is it? Hunger is a new adaptation by Fay Lomas of a 19th century novel by the same name, written by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. What is it all about? Hunger charts the quick descent of a young student flirting with the edges of poverty. It uses a strong cast of multi-rolling and elements of physical theatre.
How did it make me feel? The main question that is pervasive throughout Hunger is ‘Why?’ Before the play begins the audience reads a statement about Hamsun. It informs us that Hamsun was a racist with fascist sympathies. Although I think it is absolutely right of the company to address the bigotry of the author (and they make it very clear they do not condone or support Hamsun’s beliefs) it does, perhaps make me watch the production with a certain bias.
Whether it is right or not, I feel that this play needs to be really good in order to make up for the choice to perform a story written by a man who gifted his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels. This play is definitely good, whether it passes this redemption test is something that is up to the audience to decide upon.
The subject matter is one particularly close to my heart as someone who has experienced homelessness whilst young, educated and sober, not fitting in to the damning stereotypes that the media likes to portray of the homeless.
I wonder how much of the original novel was lost as the spiral into homelessness and poverty that The Young Man experiences does at times feels unearned. However, Kwame Odoom, who plays the unnamed protagonist with a chaotic and spinning nervous energy, is intensely likeable and holds his own against a constant barrage of hatred and kicks to the gut.
The dissatisfaction of wanting to know less about the types of jobs he’s not getting and more about the in-between moments of poverty, skated over in the first few scenes, came much more from the adaptation (or perhaps the original novel) than any sort of lack of emotional gravitas from Odoom.
The other three actors (Archie Blackhouse, Katie Eldred and Jessica Tomlinson) also gave perpetually exciting and engaging performances, cycling through a multitude of multi-roles with ease. Blackhouse in particular is able to see-saw between abominable middle-class villain and hugely empathise-able, if flawed university friend.
We are always pulled back to this original question of why. Hunger has some beautiful moments of humanity that remind us of the many homeless people in the UK, and filled us with anger and sadness.
It is an extremely accurate portrayal of poverty and homelessness, acted, directed and designed well but it doesn’t say anything that someone who isn’t a fascist couldn’t. So why platform that voice?
It feels odd and uncomfortable to essentially make the point ‘it was a good play but it shouldn’t have been this play’ in a theatre review, but that conversation is opened up by the company before the house lights even go down and cannot be ignored.
Perhaps if the production made more of a point about artist/art separations, then the choice behind the production might make more sense, but at present it does just feel like an active choice against all the other writers writing just as well about similar topics, and this inevitably affects the enjoyment of an imperfect production of an imperfect play.
It is important however, to take a moment to applaud all four actors, who bring this script to life with brilliance. Anything else? I enjoyed this play immensely and I praise Jump Spark for opening up the conversation about Knut Hamsun. I just wish I could side with their decision to produce this at all. Serafina x Hunger is playing at The Arcola Theatre until the 21st December 2019. If you like our reviews and want to support this blog feel free to buy any of us a virtual coffee here!