Writer: Rolf Hochhuth (Adapted by Peter Thiers / Translated by Peter Sutton)
Director: Antony Shrubsall
The untimely death of cultural icons is often great subject matter for dramatists fascinated by the whys and wherefores of those final days or hours in which the lives of leading luminaries from Marilyn Monroe to Virginia Woolf are snuffed out. In 2018, writer Rolf Hochhuth, who died in May this year, imagined Ernest Hemingway’s last hour in his real time play Death of a Hunter now streaming as part of the #FinboroughforFree series.
Prowling his study determined to end his life, a bullish Hemingway is unable to write so much as a cheque to his cleaning lady. As memories of his life return, the author is filled with regrets for the women he has loved, the father he adored and the sons he will leave behind, all the while convinced that the government are spying on him. “The cemeteries”, he notes, “are full of people who thought they were indispensable.”
Performed in traverse and filmed in an empty Finborough Theatre, the absent audience gives Anthony Shurbsall’s production a haunting quality, one almost accidentally acquired by genuinely situating the character of Hemingway in an empty room, quite alone with his thoughts and concerns. It never quite overcomes the shortcomings of Hochhuth’s text, but the conditions under which this streamed version was filmed add an air of loneliness – a one man show without anyone to show to.
These kinds of celebrity or icon-focused monologues often try to combine recognisable biographical detail, imagined conversations with key connections and a psychological frame to understand what made the subject so great and, usually, so fragile. Death of a Hunter ticks all the Hemingway boxes on that front, referencing his womanising, suicidal parent, wild lifestyle, war years and interest in blood sports including bullfighting and hunting.
This Hemingway also questions his abilities and success as a writer, worrying about writer’s block, being rejected by publishing houses, not writing to his sons as well as what he could write to them and all the baggage that being a “name” brings with it. Hochhuth weaves this altogether in a melee of unfolding memories, leaping between topics as Hemingway’s disordered mind skips between his many paranoid delusions.
But amidst all of this fact and supposition, there is very little sense of a flesh-and-blood human being in the darkest moment of his life. Edmund Dehn’s author stalks the stage, aggressively addressing comments to his various wives, his father, the government officials he thinks have bugged his office, to both sides of the room and to the camera. And, although he talks about descending into the abyss, you never feel he is really there on the cusp of life and death, ready to leave it all behind.
Holly Maples has created a plush and chic-looking set of white and beige, a summery place even during this dark night of the soul, and surprisingly heavenly for a man convinced he is going in the other direction. The cameras are usefully employed capturing two different angles as well as close-ups, cutting between them to create variation and intensity in places.
Showing as a tribute to Hochhuth, Death of a Hunter never quite matches the intensity of other plays with similar subject matter – Hamlet, The Deep Blue Sea, Anatomy of a Suicide – even in its final conclusive moments, but Hemingway lovers will enjoy the details and the chance to speculate on the last hour of a great writer.
Runs here until 7 October 2020