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Review of Hunger at the Arcola Theatre

Hunger. Katie Eldred (Ylayali) & Kwami Odoom (The Young Man). Credit - Alex Brenner.
Hunger. Katie Eldred (Ylayali) & Kwami Odoom (The Young Man). Credit – Alex Brenner.

Successful adaption of a famed ‘modernist’ novel is not an easy business. With much inner dialogue and shifts in perspective, late 19th century experiments in form can struggle to transform into pleasing drama and sometimes are better suited to make the leap to other media with, for example, the touch of new-wave filmmaking.

Even with a clever theatrical conceit or fine staging, it can be hard to retain the essential connective energy of the original fiction without falling into traps of monotony or self-indulgence. Writer Amanda Lomas unfortunately proves this point acutely in her adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger. The adaptation is overthought and under-dramatic; feeling like an essay filled with theatrical excerpts rather than a pulsing and important play.

At the heart of Lomas’ play’s problem is her choice to milk the ‘universality’ of the piece with an ‘every-time and everywhere’ sensibility rather than telling a specific story and trusting the audience to feel it fully and find the contemporary resonance. Ironically by choosing to be non-specific she only highlights anachronism and creates distance and emotional get-outs. For example a scene in which The Young Man (Kwami Odoom) is reduced to pawning the buttons on his shirt would have been devastatingly heart-breaking if it were consistent with a world we’d entered as an audience from the beginning. The painstaking specificity of writers like Ken Loach or Victor Hugo brings characters and their experiences to life vividly and perhaps such decisiveness could have done the same for relationship with The Young Man. Unfortunately, Lomas gives us scene after scene of tragic debasement but somehow manages to evoke more irritation with the story’s relentless and homogenous construction rather than eliciting increasing or varying degrees of pathos or engagement.

Whilst the four-handed multi-rolling production centred around The Young Man has reasonable pace and is a fine showcase for the versatility of an able and promising cast, it proceeds predictably with few shifts in the central character’s energy despite lots of activity enacted around him by the ensemble. There are some nice touches and moments, such as the glimmer of hope in meeting the publisher (Archie Backhouse) or witnessing The Young Man’s object of romantic desire (Katie Eldred) that reveals her (and by implication society’s) preference for a debauched young man rather than a vulnerable one. Natasha Harrison’s movement design works hard to convey the sense of overwhelming isolation in fluid vignettes that the cast embrace adroitly and pleasingly. Ensemble member Archie Backhouse, in particular, demonstrates impressive range with strong stage-presence in all his shape-shifts.

However, Lomas doesn’t appear to have given much in the way of depth to any of the female characters which limits the material with which the capable Jessica Tomlinson and Katie Eldred can work. If it is essential that the central perspective of the work remain through the eyes of The Young Man, it is not a particularly profitable experience to go along for the ride in which he develops no more connection, insight or empathy than those around him who populate a society of indifference and disappointment. Given the need for the producers to be explicit in condemning Knut Hamsun’s Nazi sympathies, it’s surprising the playwright didn’t focus more on addressing the de-humanising aspects of Hamsun’s voice in his thin and objectified portrayals of others in society, especially women. Again, a more specific setting in time would have afforded greater complexity by allowing the characters to reflect and react to their time and social context and we would have readily seen how much or little has changed.

Hunger serves as a decent showcase for the versatility of four strong young actors and some talented creative contributions (with Rajiv Pattani’s lighting and Lex Kosanke’s compositions standing out in addition to Harrison’s movement direction) but the story is a steady-stream of fairly one-dimensional grimness without the catharsis of tragedy. Whilst it, in certain parts, evokes the wistful isolation of some of Eugene O’Neil’s darker works, in the main, it lacks the poetry or purpose to move the spirit rather than elicit predictable nods of agreement that callous indifference to the impoverished is indeed a bad and still very present thing.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

A young man moves to the big city with dreams of becoming a writer. But in this unforgiving metropolis, friends are scarce and jobs are even scarcer. Once hunger rocks the core of his reality, how can his youthful spirit – and his sanity – survive?

Amanda Lomas explodes Knut Hamsun’s tale about a mind on the margins and, more than a century since the original novel captured the brutality of urban isolation, asks how much has changed. Directed by the winner of the Peter Hall Emerging Artist Fellowship Award at Rose Theatre Kingston, Fay Lomas.

Directed by Fay Lomas
Designer: Anna Kezia Williams
Lighting Designer: Rajiv Pattani
Composer: Lex Kosanke
Movement Director: Natasha Harrison
Cast: Archie Backhouse, Katie Eldred, Kwami Odoom and Jessica Tomlinson.

The world première of
A new adaptation by Amanda Lomas
From the novel by Knut Hamsun
On: Monday 25 November at 7pm
At: Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street, London, E8 3DL

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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