An empty, quiet space. Then noises from behind the curtain. Is someone en route to the stage?
We hear mumbles, scurrying and bumping.
A face peeps through the drapes, and in comes our enchanting Austrian-sounding impresario, played by Jonathan Levin. He's dressed in a cape and top hat, but they are old and dusty, once opulent but now relics from a vanished age. He's accompanied by the rumble of the heavy traveling-show chest, a half-eaten apple and a cheerful demeanour. And he's here to tell us about his time with a professional 'hungerer': someone who regularly starved himself for 40-day periods while sat on display in a circus cage, someone who did this mainly because they could see no other way to live.
So begins Kafka's exposition of the futility of an artist's lifework; art wrought from the pain of the human condition, and from the pressures of just surviving in a repeatedly untrusting, fickle-minded, indifferent world. As time goes on, we come to understand what that world has done to the hungerer – what it's like to live among people who don't believe in his craft, don't even understand the integrity of the art they are consuming.
This adaptation by Josh Luxenberg combines striking visual tricks with a witty script, and delivers a highly polished finish. Our becloaked friend begins with a small but enchanting solo display, but quickly breaks through the fourth wall to invite participation in the retelling. We are all drawn into the experience, captured by the hungerer's tale.
To say too much about what happens next would spoil the experience, but there are stage-magic flourishes and impressive acrobatics, tricks of the light and startlingly realistic sound. And there's a haunting performance at the centre of it all. Once Levin switches from playing the impresario to the hungerer himself, the focus narrows down, bringing us into the heart of his obsession as the world around him moves onwards and away from him. In one stunning scene which has to be seen to be fully understood, Levin plays three characters simultaneously, squabbling over the hungerer's future in a bravura display of theatrical skill.
Buckets of sweat must have gone into crystallising and perfecting this one-man performance, and it's a treat to see what can happen when story magic morphs before our eyes – travelling through powerful realism, comedy, audience participation, mini-puppetry, macro-puppetry, music, quick-change continuity and out-and-out first-class acting. A Hunger Artist redefines the meaning of small-scale Fringe theatre; it really does stand out as the best, most complete work I've seen this year. If I had a sixth star, it would get one.