Franz Kafka wrote The Hunger Artist whilst in the throes of fatal tuberculosis. In this staging of his short story, the eponymous artist struggles instead in a cage of deprivation, starving for his art, which, to the more dramatic of us, is rather fitting given the experience of yet another lockdown.
The production is very much a slow burn: we watch the Hunger Artist (Henry Petch) as he transforms from a man standing tall and robust to a collapsed fragment of a person, denying himself nutrition to entertain the masses. The simplicity of the staging complements his exhibitionism and the questions of seeing and believing raised by the script. As we are reminded, we cannot prove the Artist is starving without watching him endlessly; we may only believe. Positioned centre-stage, Petch’s ever-weakening character is utterly exposed, distanced from the other figures on stage. His isolation is heightened through clever use of a spotlight followed by blackout, which helps emphasise key themes of belief and scrutiny. The use of curious fairground music sets the scene for a spectacle on the outskirts of plausibility, and contrasts starkly with the dark subject matter of starvation.
As the Hunger Artist writhes and suffers, the Constable periodically updates a sign announcing his days starved, and days “before public interest declines.” The voyeuristic grotesqueness of gawping at human suffering is explicit, and at the Artist’s weakest points the sound of visceral, open-mouthed munching of food is distressingly unsettling. The audience is then confronted with the awkward question of why we are here to watch? Are we the same as those perverse spectators who laugh and mock the starving Artist? But why are we uncomfortable? After all, our Artist starves out of a love for starvation, and an inability to find joy in food. This challenging confusion of roles between the fairground and theatre audiences is a clever consequence of the adaptation from page to stage, and the query is left enigmatically unresolved.
The performance’s initial laboured build reaches a fiery crescendo as the Artist’s body caves under the strain of his art. Narrator Carrieanne Vivianette’s sudden vocal variation is a highlight: the change in the narrator’s voice is just the right kind of shocking and unsettling, and her repetition of how the Artist is a fragile, weak little martyr makes vivid his struggle between resilience and human vulnerability. The synchronisation between the narrated word ‘tug’ and the Artist’s own backwards convulsions is particularly impressive, revealing his loss of agency and bodily deficiency.
True to Kafka’s text, the story of The Hunger Artist fizzles out unceremoniously. His mental resolution is consumed by corporeal weakness, and the tale’s ending affords us the true explanation for his work: he simply does not like to eat. The narrator’s move, for the first time, towards the lifeless man, emphasises the care withheld by the fairground audience, and challenges our own responses. As a clever touch, the sign foretelling audience disinterest is covered over by an advert for another performance entirely, condemning the emaciated artist to irrelevance.
CVIVArts’ production is certainly true to its description of ‘absurdist’, and is in places truly compelling. The initial slow pace of the production is somewhat difficult to work through, and the message to the audience – if any – remains unclear. Nonetheless, this production is an enjoyable interpretation of Kafka’s weirdness, and leaves many questions of human nature to ponder.
Based on a short story by: Franz Kafka
Original writing by: Neil Rathmell
Directed by: Carrieanne Vivianette
Produced by: CVIVArts Theatre
The Hunger Artist is available free to watch on YouTube, via the below link.