Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies
The unnamed writer at the centre of Hunger has a skull-like, bald head. Dark eyesockets are concealed by spectacles. His top lip protrudes, with a drooping articulated mouth giving him a permanently disagreeable expression. His fleshless ribs stick to his shirt. The two actors of TinkerTing ((Per Arne Løset and Gisle Hass) each provide the writer with one human hand and use their voices to suggest his internal debates. While one voice pontificates, the other sneers and scoffs: ‘Charlatan!’ Their movements are beautifully co-ordinated as the writer scribbles, reads and crumples up sheets of paper. At times, they create moments of comedy from this doubling, as when the shabby writer tries to polish up all four of his brown brogues and crosses all four legs.
The piece is most satisfying when it makes images with a metaphorical quality. A newspaper editor is introduced by the sound of typewriter keys; he is assembled before our eyes from a coat draped over the back of a chair and a boldly sculpted head. In response to the editor’s laconic instruction – ‘Cut’ – the writer first tears a strip from the bottom of his article, then tears it in half, and finally throws away all but one word.
The characters that the writer encounters all emerge from his room and are brought to life by his hands, suggesting that we see them through his eyes. This is true, in one sense, to Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel, which is narrated in the first person. The sparsely furnished bedroom becomes a street as a threatening beggar, an ex-soldier without legs (made of sacking and scrap wood), begs for a crust and gobbles it down. He is then bundled away into a corner – rather as if the writer has simply walked away.
However, this way of working with the puppets reduces the sense of alternative viewpoints – which can be implied even by first-person narration. The love interest, a young woman called ‘Ylajali’, is made out of a frock on a dressmaker’s stand combined with the face of a baby doll, eyeless and hollow. The design of the puppet eloquently suggests the plight of a woman regarded as an object, without views of her own, but this deliberate lack of expressivity makes her attitude towards the writer completely unreadable.
Initially very engaging, the piece becomes frustrating because the social, economic and emotional meaning of the scenes remains obscure. Is the writer starving himself in an artistic experiment (as the programme suggests) or unable to afford bread (as the opening scene suggests)? The Gothic typeface used in the design and a programme note both refer to Hamsun’s support for National Socialism during the Second World War, but it was impossible to see whether this was explored in the play. Understanding the Norwegian text might have made a big difference, of course, and perhaps the novel is so well-known in Norway that the production works as commentary without needing to tell the story.
The writer’s conflicts, like hunger, are internal experiences, even if they can be imagined by others. Yet in the end hunger itself seemed to be forgotten in the attempt to induce emotion through over-amplified sound: the rumblings of the writer’s stomach replaced by the deafening roars of circus animals.
Festival Mondial des Theatres des Marionettes at Charleville-Mezieres in France took place 18–27 September 2009.