Clapp, Susannah, New Statesman (1996)
When she was at primary school Kathryn Hunter was cast as a dwarf. In her twenties, she appeared in Aladdin as a monkey. She has played a moustached Brando-style gangster in Wiseguy Scapino, insisting, her director explained, "on having a willie, to be correct but also for the fun". She has been - in one production of The Winter's Tale - an elderly shepherd, a middle-aged matron, a child of six, and a personification of Time. When Caryl Churchill wrote The Skriker she envisaged that several actors would be needed to embody the different incarnations of the shape-changing spirit of the title; Kathryn Hunter played them all.
Hunter - who was advised at Rada to get rid of her Greek surname, Hadjipateras, in order to avoid being cast only as a gypsy - has been much praised for her ability to transform herself; "protean" and "chameleon" are words that occur in connection with her performances. At first blush there is something odd and tautologous about this praise: what is the point of an actor who is incapable of being something other than herself? But Hunter's metamorphoses are singular. She is not an actor who vanishes into her parts; she impresses her distinctive characteristics - a husky, many-layered voice, a wiry, confusingly supple body on her audience, while showing these assets to be infinitely flexible. She doesn't make being on stage seem normal, or like ordinary life: her acting is strenuous, intense, nerved-up. She is at the far pole from the casual plausibility of soap-operatics. She is a high-wire performer.
Some part of Hunter's magnificence comes from her work with Theatre de Complicite, which, since its establishment in 1983, has helped to enlarge the possibilities of theatre in England. Set up by performers - some of them trained in French mime, all of them having an interest in improvisation, in pieces which are "devised" rather than written - Complicite has produced a theatre of the eye, of movement, of legerdemain: it has dealt in visual jokes, in acrobatic tumblings, in expressive orchestrations of groups of actors. The name of the company refers to the actors' dependence on each other; according to John Berger, this is "a fraternity that works". It also takes account of a collusion between actors and audience, based on the recognition that, although some parts of a piece are predetermined, others are improvised. "Complicite! Like a wink", runs one definition.
Hunter's work at Rada had concentrated on speech; her most vigorous attention to movement had come in tap-dancing classes. As a student she was knocked down by a car: her back and her pelvis were broken and a foot smashed, and when she joined Complicite she explained that she couldn't run or jump. …