Writer: Franz Kafka
Adaption: Neil Rathmell, Carrieanne Vivianette
Director: Carrieanne Vivianette
It is probably pointless to upbraid an adaptation of a Kafka story for being opaque, enigmatic and uninvolving, but CVICarts’ debut production of Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is certainly all three of those.
The original story is equally strange. The narrator tells of a mania for hunger artists who starve themselves for the entertainment of the public. Kafka’s third person narrator focuses on one of them who was exhibited for 40 days at a time by his manager: 40 days being the limit, the manager thinks, both of his endurance and the public’s attention. The hunger artist resents this: as an artist he wants to see how far he can take his achievement.
Then the public suddenly loses interest in hunger artists and, by the time the narrator tells the story, the artist is in a humble cage on the fringe of a circus, almost totally disregarded, but now able to pursue his art to the ultimate. When he dies, the circus fills the cage with a panther with a healthy appetite.
A wonderful comment on Wikipedia tells us that all critics agree that the story is an allegory, but they disagree wildly on what it’s an allegory of! To stick to the more obviously sensible theories, it is certainly a sardonic satire on the changeability of public taste and a rather bitter portrayal of the artist who lives for his art irrespective of public reaction or, even, common sense – Kafka himself?
Carrieanne Vivianette is true to Kafka’s concept, though she makes little attempt to enliven a performance that is more forensic than dramatic. The Hunger Artist (Henry Petch) does slow-motion gymnastics on a small rectangle, the floor covered with straw, with a clock and a glass of water in the front corners. The Warder (Richard Koslowsky) stomps around with a cane, lion-tamer-style, and exits from time to time, his footsteps echoing around the theatre. Sometimes he increases the number of days on a board, after a while including a countdown to when the public will lose interest. A coolly official young woman (Vivianette) sits unmoving, watching, adding a narrative, presumably a translation of Kafka’s original, in detached, objective tones.
Things do change somewhat. The Warder has a single confidential scene in which he talks about how to con the public and the deceptions and credulity in the world. The Hunger Artist’s movements get less and less controlled, grunting and hurling himself about with animal intensity before subsiding to exhaustion. When he hallucinates, the Narrator has an intense narrative of overlapping phrases, well delivered by Vivianette, which calls to mind Lucky in Waiting for Godot and reminds us how much the spirit of Beckett looms over proceedings.
The difference is that, when nothing happens in Godot (twice!), it’s an immensely theatrical “nothing”. Here all three actors maintain the right tone and Petch deserves credit for his physical commitment, but at times there is far more interest in the atmospheric music of Duncan Evans (excellent!) than in the action – or inaction!
Carrieanne Vivianette is looking to “create her own unique and experimental theatre pieces” and in that regard she has made a bold choice for her first production. It’s less certain she has made a wise choice.
A final oddity: the play was billed, even as late as the start of the performance, as lasting 75 minutes. It lasted 53 minutes. That suggests work in progress. Maybe, by next year, it will have more impact – or CVIVarts’ next production will.
Plays Seven Arts, Leeds, on March 7th 2020