Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger over a century ago would give way to a new style of writing, writing based more so on the psychological well being of a protagonist. Originally based in Oslo, a nameless protagonist finds himself gradually spiralling into a world of deprivation and hunger, his very generosity now causing him to scrounge for food, this in turn having a significant impact on his physical and mental health. What’s concerning is that this tale of homelessness and poverty draws a parallel to our very own modern society; according to Crisis UK, in 2018 an estimated ‘57,890 households were accepted as homeless in England. In Scotland, 34,100 applications were assessed as homeless and in Wales 9,210 households were threatened with homelessness.’ A sign of our times, Hunger resonates as much today as it did in the 19th century. An adaptation of Hamsun’s pivotal novel is currently showing at the Arcola Theatre, with actor Kwami Odoom taking on the lead role; The Young Man. Kwami tells us more about the show.
Hi Kwami, you’re currently starring in Amanda Lomas’ adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger at the Arcola Theatre. How is the run going so far?
Hiya, I am indeed! The run is going really well, we’re a really close cast and are having a really great time really exploring this story creatively and reactions from audiences have been really great as well. A lot of people talking about how it’s impacted them but also that it’s really made them think about their own behaviour and responsibility to the most vulnerable in London.
Knut Hamsun’s novel ‘captured the brutality of urban isolation’. How have you found exploring this theme during rehearsals and performances?
It’s such a big world and theme that I think it was a little intimidating in the beginning but the sad reality is that pretty much everything Hamsun explores in the novel feels very relevant today so, having grown up in London, I had a lot of personal experience to draw on. It can be quite tough working in a lonely, vulnerable place every day but the whole team have been a dream to work with so it’s been balanced out by how lovely they are!
You play ‘The Young Man’ – can you tell us more about his character?
The Young Man at the start of the play is a student from the north of the country with dreams of being a writer who is starting to really struggle to keep his head above water in a big city. He’s very proud, with a strict sense of how he appears to others in the play, meaning he finds it very hard to ask for help. He’s also grappling with larger questions of his place in the city, the world but also his religious beliefs and whether God exists, and if He does, whose side is He on.
What drew you to the role and how did you prepare for it?
I was really drawn to the play as a whole to be honest, I loved the form of this story where scenes just crash into each other endlessly. I really enjoy pieces with multirolling, and the idea of this character who almost stays still while the world and other characters just appear and move around him. It felt like a big challenge for me.
In terms of preparation, I tried to get as offbook as possible before rehearsals started because there are over 50 scenes in the play and we only had 3 weeks to get through it all. I tend to work quite physically and so not having to have the script on stage with me meant I could really focus on plotting the journey of The Young Man’s hunger and physical decline. I also spent a lot of time researching homelessness and poverty in the UK, in particular the ‘hidden homeless’, those who aren’t rough sleeping but are still without a home and might be couch surfing or in hostels. I did a daytime fast just to note down some of the physical and mental effects of hunger, but I feel like it’s important to note that I’ve done fasts before for Yom Kippur so wasn’t going in blind and that I said to myself at the beginning of the day that I would push myself into anything extreme! I’m not a method actor at all! It was more about having a physical memory of the feelings for when we were working in rehearsals.
Hunger is directed by Fay Lomas and movement directed by Natasha Harrison – how have you, as well as the rest of the cast, worked together to realise the show?
It’s been a brilliantly collaborative process. Pretty much all the movement has come from Fay or Tash (alongside her associate Georgina Makhubele) working with us to create a language of gestures or movements. For the other 3 in the cast, there was a lot of work both physically and vocally in making all the characters they play (they play somewhere around 40 between them?) distinct. Often we’d be given a prompt to create gestures that Tash, Fay or Georgina would combine into a sequence (that’s how the vast majority of scene changes were made)
What can audiences expect from the show?
Audiences can expect a pacy, tender, vulnerable show with quite a few funny moments that really challenges them to look at the responsibility we all have as individuals and as a collective towards the most vulnerable of us.
What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?
I’d like audiences to take away a renewed desire to care for their fellow human beings but also a renewed love for institutions like the NHS that are available to use regardless of financial situation. They say we’re all just two paychecks away from real poverty, hopefully the show really brings that to light.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
Oooh this is a tough one! It’s so hard to give catch all advice that doesn’t sound trite or vague. I guess I’d say that you will never suffer for investing in your interests other than acting/performing. The best artists are curious, passionate and sensitive people. You may never use pottery professinally but it will sustain and develop you in ways you can’t imagine! Hopefully that’s useful to someone!
Questions by Lucy Basaba.
Hunger is currently showing until Saturday 21st December 2019 at the Arcola Theatre. To find out more about the production, visit here…