‘hunger’ at Paradise in the Vault

☆☆☆☆☆ – ‘Isn’t it better to be a woman artist, than no artist at all?’

Hunger is an utterly compelling piece of new work that seems to defy conventions of opera and theatre and rises into its own genre of performance art. A strong narrative in the libretto by Ryan Hay is combined with a gripping and innovative score by Joanna Ward, inventive direction from Emma Hall and a punchy orchestra conducted by Edward Liebrecht. It is undoubtedly one of the most original and enjoyable things I’ve seen at the fringe this year.

The story is inspired by Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, and re-examines the art world’s approach to women’s work. The narrative itself follows a young mother’s struggle to reconcile her domestic duties as art. Wanton Theatre’s contemporary retelling relates the story to artists and creatives who have attempted to push boundaries, and have had their practise criticised and not taken seriously, especially in the climate of the contemporary art world, an Industry that is constantly reimagining what it classifies as art.

The stand out star of the show is Anna-Luise Wagner whose talent and energy creates a visceral and authentic portrayal of a woman who is at the end of her tether and eager to succeed in a system rigged against her. Wagner’s bright voice is laced with anguish, fear and guilt and poignantly portrays what it means to be have your vision silenced.

The rest of cast are strong and effectively construct the chaotic and tense world of the opera. The art dealer, played by Eleanor Burke is fierce; she highlights the importance of female creatives supporting each other. The three male watchmen are brilliantly played by Louis Watkins, Ruari Paterson-Achenbach and Joe Rooke, who morph into different characters surrounding the Artist, from her beloved children, to her critics in the art world and even the abstract demons that poison her mind with doubt.  Their claustrophobic watch over her is echoed in their harmonies and very little space available on the small stage of The Vault is effective in heightening the sense of restriction.  Most impressive is their use of physicality to shapeshift into the different facets of oppression and indeed their sequences in-between scenes are what give the piece an inherently contemporary feel.

The design elements of the piece are simple but effective. Costumes hint at character rather than define them. The overall production is slick and provocative without being pretentious. It is worth noting that the piece ends feeling unresolved, without a glimmer of hope in the future. This, however, gives it a similar feel to a work of performance art, as it offers up big ideas and themes with the goal only of reflection on the stifled situation in which the artist is left.  Hunger is a herald that opera is changing, as it becomes more socially and politically aware. Although the production doesn’t entirely attain ‘woke-pera’ credentials its inventiveness, emotional charge and focus on female driven narrative deserves merit and praise.

12:10, 4th-11th August at Paradise in the Vault.

Review by Camilla Anvar

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