Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 28 November 2019

Review: Hunger at Arcola Theatre

20 November - 21 December

‘A stumble off the path, into a crack in the ground’: Emily Davis writes on a new adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s book and the politics of the decision to programme it.

Emily Davis
Hunger at Arcola Theatre. Photo credit: Alex Brenner.

Hunger at Arcola Theatre. Photo credit: Alex Brenner.

Hunger is an adaptation by Amanda Lomas of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel of the same name, which follows an unnamed young man in an unnamed city attempting to make a living as a writer, beset by unemployment, who eventually becomes destitute and starts hallucinating from hunger.

Kwami Odoom is utterly compelling as the unnamed young man. He bristles with anxiety and ambition, veering from a meeting with a high-profile journalist to teetering on the edge of starvation. As he falls behind on rent, then food, and paces the city, only finding closed doors instead of jobs, it’s easy to see the relevance that the company saw in the story. I think though, that their blanket commitment to a vague ‘timeless’ universality is misjudged. I don’t think there’s any benefit to erasing the details, such as date, location, currency, landmarks, that root you to a setting. At best, this decision feels slightly toothless, at worst, it near-erases the political edge that the company are aiming for.

The supporting cast (Archie Backhouse, Katie Eldred, and Jessica Tomlinson) turn in strong performances as an ensemble of caricaturized background characters. Each character has a different regional accent, so you can tell they’re different people. While they all do a good job finding a verbal smoothness and silky lilt in their delivery, the words themselves often feel very heavy-handed and clunky.

Natasha Harrison’s movement direction is slick and propelling, but I (and this is a pet peeve) absolutely hate it when a show opens with the ensemble walking briskly onstage as music plays, all simultaneously stopping to do an action, showing it’s a busy city street! When the movement stops, Fay Lomas’ directing seems awkward and ill-thought-out. In the very first scene a fishmonger whips out a mackerel from the inside pocket of his jacket and places it on the floor to be gutted. Whenever a scene doesn’t involve an actor, they sort of loiter at the back, half visible behind the flats.

The play is erratically structured; absurdism bursts through as the young man begins to hallucinate from hunger. Each burst of disassociation is accompanied by a boom of sound, whilst cracks in the floor of Anna Kezia Williams’s design flare up with light. I really like these cracks. They visualize the feeling of walking around and feeling, knowing, that your world isn’t stable.

The young man appears to seek momentary relief in the company of a young woman who may be a dream, but she cruelly rejects him when it is revealed that he is homeless. He heads back out onto the street.

And then just like that, the show ends, in a finale so abrupt it feels like it’s been forgotten about. I’m bemused, irritated and a bit bored.

Ok. Now for the conundrum that meant that this review has taken so long to write. Knut Hamsun, the writer of the original novel was a massive Nazi sympathiser. As in, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1920, and gave his prize to Joseph Goebbels. As in, gave a eulogy for Hitler after his suicide. I find the decision of this company to adapt the novel, and the Arcola for programming it, surprising! To say the least!

There’s a statement on the Arcola website from the creative and production teams which unequivocally condemns his views: ‘We acknowledge that the relationship between artworks and their original creators is a complex and contentious subject. We invite everyone to engage with this adaptation of HUNGER in full knowledge of the views and actions of the source material’s author, Knut Hamsun.’

And I just think

Am I missing something here?

Why was this staged in the first place?

And – not to be that dick- but in this political climate?

Surely there are other stories? There are many MANY works about social austerity and deprivation that you could adapt, which would make beautiful, heartfelt pieces of drama, that weren’t written by Nazis!

Nothing in the play itself outwardly stinks of vitriol or prejudice, and you can clearly see the company’s priorities in focusing on poverty and social cruelty, but by adapting Knut Hamsun’s novel, they have elevated this figure back into public dialogue, and his views with it. More than that, they’ve shot themselves in the foot a bit by having to justify their source material from the outset. Whatever programme notes or rehearsal room discussions you have are kind of superfluous when it’s not the play itself or the process of making it but the author of the source text that is the issue.

In many ways, the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the production makes this more difficult. I don’t want to say that if it was, in my opinion, of a higher artistic quality then it would be totally fine to adapt the Nazi’s book. Because it wouldn’t be, and it isn’t.

I find it particularly frustrating because I hadn’t even heard of the author before booking to see this show. He could have been left in the Wikipedia article on 1920s Nobel winners, and in a few introduction to modernism classes.  You’re not censoring someone if they died decades ago and you just make the decision to not spend months and years and thousands of pounds adapting his work.

I know first-hand how much effort goes into producing a show. So rather than being angry or upset I’m honestly just surprised? Ultimately, I’m surprised that the theatre company Jump Spark and Arcola Theatre have chosen to produce this particular piece. I’ve always found that the Arcola put their money where their mouth is with their participation, their programming, their ArcolaLAB scheme which provides free rehearsal space to projects led by people of colour. So this feels like a big misstep. A stumble off the path, into a crack in the ground.

Hunger is on at Arcola Theatre till 21st December. More info here

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Emily Davis is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Hunger at Arcola Theatre Show Info


Produced by Arcola Theatre and Jump Street

Directed by Fay Lomas

Written by Knut Hamsun and Amanda Lomas

Cast includes Archie Backhouse, Katie Eldred, Kwami Odoom and Jessica Tomlinson

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