Death of a Hunter – Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Rolf Hochhuth

Adaptor: Peter Thiers

Translator: Peter Sutton

Director: Anthony Shrubsall

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

On 2 July 1961, the bell tolled for Ernest Hemingway, literary icon of the mid 20th Century. His tempestuous life had encompassed four marriages, the lively bars of Havana and the deadly battlegrounds of three wars in Europe, but, in the early hours of that day in his Ketchum, Idaho home, he picked up his favourite hunting rifle and shot himself through the head.

German playwright Rolf Hochhuth has imagined the final hour of Hemingway’s life for this monologue, performed in real time and here receiving its English language premiere. In Holly Maples’ set design, the thickly carpeted study of the journalist and novelist has a small desk at one end a telephone table at the other, flanked on either side by the audience. The 61-years-old Hemingway that enters is ravaged by prolonged mental illness – he is paranoid, delusional and severely depressed – compounded by electric shock treatment that would be considered barbaric in the modern age. His memory, “a writer’s only asset”, is gone.

The chief problem with Hochhuth’s play is that it conflicts with itself. We are informed that its only character suffers from memory loss and an inability to express himself, but we then hear from him recollections from the past that are clear and articulate. If the playwright’s aim is to contrast the dying Hemingway with the man in his prime, we need two points of focus and it seems very curious that Hochhuth has chosen to write the play as a monologue.

As Hemingway resolves to write a suicide letter to his sons, actor Edmund Dehn’s fingers hover trembling over a typewriter, incapable of touching the keys. This is the one moment in Anthony Shrubsall’s production when Hemingway’s debilitated condition is evident. Otherwise, Dehn strides around assertively, confronting members of the audience individually. He resembles a caged bull, or, more pertinently, Hemingway at the peak of his powers. When, we hear, in graphic detail, of a deer that the author had shot, staring into his eyes as he fumbles to put it out of its misery, we think that the anecdote could be alluding to Hemingway’s own dying condition, but we see or hear nothing to endorse such a metaphor.

Hochhuth writes of the nobility of nature and the savagery of mankind in terms that are true to Hemingway, but, for the rest, the play does little more than recap widely known facts, without adding fresh insights into a man who continues to fascinate us. Most disappointing of all is that a play that chronicles the sad demise of a cultural giant simply fails to be moving.

Runs until 17 April 2018 | Image: Contributed

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