The hunter of the title is Ernest Hemingway, the American author who’s celebrated for his larger-than-life exploits as much as he is for his novels. As a journalist, he was famously in the thick of the Spanish Civil War, while as an 18-year-old he was injured on the front line of World War I. He lived in Paris, in Florida, and controversially in Cuba; he was fascinated by bullfighting, and by hunting and fishing too. But now we find Hemingway at home, surrounded by props calling out the elements of his public persona. There’s a tiger’s head, a typewriter… and a gun.
It soon becomes clear that, on the day we meet him, it’s Hemingway who’s the hunted one. Alone on the stage, actor Edmund Dehn prowls round the set in the style of a caged animal, lamenting the decline in both his writing and his health. Paranoia has set in - the result, perhaps, of the electric-shock therapy Hemingway received in later life - and he’s convinced that everyone, from his wife to the local sheriff to the FBI, is involved in a plot to entrap him. It’s left ambiguous whether there’s any truth at all to this, but it’s still sad to see a once-great man shouting at the air.
The script Dehn’s performing has a complex history: penned by Rolf Hochhuth almost 40 years ago, now translated from the German by Peter Sutton and further adapted by Peter Thiers. The resulting first half meanders a little and, for a while, I worried we were in for a formless biography. Before long, though, the focus narrows, and the fictionalised Hemingway begins to develop a fascinating perspective on what drove his celebrated escapades. He’s written his own life narrative, with himself as the hero - but the truth is sometimes uglier than the story he’s told.
Dehn is convincing as Hemingway, portraying a memorable and often-poignant combination of vulnerability and defiance. He has a commanding presence, and carried my interest equally well through the more expansive and more introspective scenes. There’s some interaction with a tape recorder later on which I didn’t entirely understand, but which serves to punctuate the monologue and offer Dehn a foil; in the end, the picture of a proud man facing terrible self-realisation is both painful and fascinating to watch.
A few things didn’t quite gel for me. The early part of the script touches on the details of Hemingway’s four marriages, and there’s a hint of misogyny in his bitter recriminations towards some of the women in his life. But that thought is quickly left hanging; better not to open this particular box, I’d say, unless you’re have the time to properly delve into it. There’s also a bizarrely underwhelming war scene and, conversely, one or two moments when the performance felt too dialled-up for the relatively intimate space it’s appearing in.
But overall I recommend Death of a Hunter, both for a performance that’s easy to get on board with and for its insight into what makes men like Hemingway tick. By homing in on a particular slice of the author’s psychology, the script transcends his individual history; you might recognise yourself in the narrative, or learn something about someone you know. Whatever happens, it’s an enjoyable and skilfully-presented hour.