A Hunger Artist

Franz Kafka adapted by Carrieanne Vivianette and Neil Rathmell
CVIVArts Theatre
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A Hunger Artist Credit: Mark Hillyer
A Hunger Artist Credit: Mark Hillyer
A Hunger Artist Credit: Mark Hillyer

The myth that suffering generates great art is often reflected in the image of an artist starving in a garret. Franz Kakfa’s A Hunger Artist takes the idea literally. It imagines a craze whereby, for a maximum of 40 days, a person publicly practices the art of starvation; drawing crowds fascinated by his suffering.

The story is open to a range of interpretations. The Hunger Artist can be seen as a spiritual or religious purist foregoing desire and physical satisfaction for a Biblical 40 days and nights. Considering the currently popularity of manufactured ‘reality’ television, one cannot ignore the possibility the story is about the fickleness of audiences. The duration of the artist’s fast is determined by the estimated time of public interest rather than his objectives. The Hunger Artist is perceived as a fad and ultimately forgotten; left to fulfil his artistic goals while the public are entertained instead by a circus animal.

Or the story may be a comment on artistic pretension. The Hunger Artist regards himself as above worldly considerations and is offended by his warden’s failure to appreciate his principled stance. Yet, as with all artists, he is compelled to compromise his standards. To attract and retain audience attention, he reaches out to crowds through cage bars. Perhaps we are meant to conclude artists are shallow egotists and can do without food but need attention for sustenance. Carrieanne Vivianette and Neil Rathmell’s adaptation is neutral and does not prompt the audience to one interpretation in favour of another but, as their ending is very close to an ironic punchline, they may favour the criticism of artistic posing.

Director Carrieanne Vivianette (who co-adapted and also acts a narrator) takes a cool objective approach to the staging. Henry Petch as the Hunger Artist is in a confined space centre-stage while a narrator to the rear quotes from the text in a neutral tone and Richard Koslowsky’s warden paces around, occasionally making disparaging remarks. Duncan Evans’s sound compositions undermine any artistic pretensions. The tinny, tinkling score brings to mind music boxes or fairgrounds rather than more high-minded types of entertainment. Yet the detached approach limits the atmosphere of the play; viewers never really get drawn in or feel themselves in the position of shameful voyeurs.

Henry Petch’s tormented performance shows the human cost of striving for artistic perfection. Phil Sanger’s mime-style choreography initially allows Petch some dignity with hamstring and arm stretches as if warming up for exercise. Gradually, however, Petch’s movements become grotesque, reducing the Hunger Artist to animalistic poses as the physical strain of starvation becomes impossible to ignore. It seems less an artistic expression than a stubborn refusal to surrender to human need.

CVIVArts Theatre presents the ideas within the source material without favouring one or another. Ironically, for a play in which audience involvement is emphasised, A Hunger Artist is interesting to watch but not particularly gripping.

Reviewer: David Cunningham