This adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel has clever moves and clear decisions. As we follow its starving character, a student and writer who struggles as a “loser and misfit” in a big city, the direction from Fay Lomas has smart touches. The staging is inventive, the design by Anna Kezia Williams and Rajiv Pattani well used, while tight choreography creates considerable momentum. Pain is effectively portrayed, and highlighting the mental health problems that arise from malnutrition proves enlightening. A case that this tale of a down-and-out could occur any time and any place is obviously the point. Lomas works to show just that – and it’s a job well done.
There’s no doubt the piece serves as a brilliant showcase for a talented quartet of performers. Archie Backhouse, Katie Eldred and Jessica Tomlinson act as the population of a whole town; they cannot fail to impress as you lose count of the ages and accents depicted. They even manage to make a few named characters vivid, despite the brevity of the roles. With the unnamed lead, Hunger makes an exciting vehicle for Kwami Odoom who brings a great presence to the stage and intelligent responses to his task. It’s a thrill for the audience too – there’s a sense of seeing a big talent for the first time and the hope we’ll be able to boast about it one day!
Much of the production’s clarity comes from Amanda Lomas’s adaptation. For a plotless novel that explores psychology through a first-person narrative, her decisions seem sensible, if conservative. Unlike Hamsun, Lomas provides a hero for us to focus on – the play’s lead is far more sympathetic than in the book. The most distressing and controversial scenes are passed over: the character chews on orange peel rather than a bone and his relations with women are made less problematic. We’re given more background, a sense of his age and a more carefully chartered descent into poverty that work well dramatically and serve a broadly political purpose.
Lomas has created a more even experience than that of reading the book. She has an eye on an audience rather than an existential axe to grind. Hamsun was obsessed with pride and religion – both have a small part here as they don’t fit with the programme. And it has to be admitted that there’s a disappointing lack of intensity for a novel famed for just that quality. The character’s ego and his rants against God end up a little lost. Thankfully, it’s possible to argue that the production’s aims are served by toning both down. We’re presented with a story about poverty made universal and powerful by theatre makers with a strong sense of purpose.
Inspired by the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed for treason in 1953, James Phillips’ play about politics and betrayal is a weighty drama. Creating a fictional parallel to real life events focuses the themes of individual responsibility and ideology. Setting the action over three decades allows an extrapolation on the legacy of events. This new production from director Joe Harmston makes the most of viewing two generations – the traitors and their children – resulting in a strong revival of a rich and complex play.
Harmston’s direction is luxurious. It feels as if equal time is given to the three couples: Jakob and Esther Rubenstein, her brother David and his wife Rachel and also their heirs, Matthew and Anna. The stories mingle effectively. Harmston might make a little too much fuss over scene changes and his traverse staging add less than desired but the issues of loyalty and hope are clear, while justice is done to a text full of argument and emotion. Best of all, Harmston has secured tremendous performances from his cast.
Ruby Bentall and Henry Proffit play the lead couple and inject an impressive energy into their political discussions. Sean Rigby takes the part of Esther’s brother and betrayer. Rigby develops his role well as the character becomes “haunted” by unwanted fame and he is ably supported by Eva-Jane Willis as Rachel who is consistently superb. The four are convincing as a family unit and the love each couple have for one another is utterly compelling. It’s a bit of a puzzle why the younger roles end up in a sexual relationship as well, surely an unnecessary complication? Nonetheless, Katie Eldred saves her weaker written character of Anna, whose suicide attempt is poorly handled by Phillips. And Dario Coates is excellent as Matthew, the impassioned son of the Rubensteins, who decides to fight to clear the family name.
The influence of Arthur Miller and his McCarthy inspired 1953 drama The Crucible lies heavy on the text – it is explicitly referenced and cerebrally employed. Proffit makes Jakob a powerful surrogate for Miller’s hero John Proctor. Stephen Billington’s FBI Agent, who interrogates and then tries to save Jakob and Esther, is an efficient take on the previous play’s Reverend Hale and points us towards interesting questions. The fanatics vision is brought into focus; Bantall’s eyes as she faces her martyrdom in the electric chair are mesmerising. Phillips appreciates that the “gift of empathy”, discussed as an inspiration that can cross generations, is also a danger and can be poisonous. The Rubenstein Kiss provides salutary insight reached through care and intelligence.