THEATRE / Out of the body experiences: The actress Kathryn Hunter is a master practitioner of the theatre of physical contortion, despite serious, permanent injury. By Miranda Carter

Kathryn Hunter was the chameleon star of Theatre de Complicite's 1990 hit, Help, I'm Alive]. By turns a pathetic old woman lamenting the departure of her son, a young girl in search of excitement, swinging precariously from a bar and taking an unhealthy interest in her knickers, and a fat, lecherous mafioso, scratching his crotch in anticipation of money and sex, she riveted attention. Her tiny body seemed both immensely supple and slightly askew, her use of movement at once acrobatically skilled and utterly un-English. There was something exotic and mysterious about her.

Three years ago she scooped an Olivier award for her role as the vengeful Clara Zachnassian, a praying mantis in mink with a whisky- ravaged voice and a limp, in Complicite's version of Durrenmatt's The Visit at the National Theatre. And she has just finished another extraordinary performance, in the title role of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker. Though the play itself wasn't entirely successful, Hunter's performance, as an ancient shape- changing earth spirit, was. Judith Mackrell, in this paper, wrote: 'Hunter's power to change shape is as formidable and mysterious as the character she plays . . . Movement and language don't just complement each other, they are luminously inseparable.'

It wasn't always so. At her all- girls school in London, it was her friend Michelle Wade (who now owns and runs Maison Bertaux, the Soho patisserie) who wanted to act, and Hunter who trailed along behind her to drama classes. It never occurred to her to be an actress until the end of her first year at Bristol University, when she was overwhelmed by the party atmosphere ('the community of it all') and by her first laugh from an audience. She went straight to Rada, where she was so green that when someone was described as 'hammy', she had to ask what it meant.

So where did her interest in movement come from? 'I was always quite double-jointed and aware of my body,' she says, her voice throaty, but soft, with none of the rasp of her acting. 'But though we did a lot of tap at Rada, there didn't seem to be a vocabulary for physically being on stage.'

'Physically being' was brought shockingly into focus for her by a terrible car accident in which she broke her back, pelvis and one arm, smashed an elbow, crushed a foot and collapsed a lung. The doctors said she'd never walk again. 'It was a big struggle to get fit,' she says briskly now, 'but it never occurred to me to believe them.'

Returning to Rada for a final term, she had to parade down a grand staircase as an American hostess in Lady Be Good. 'I had this massive limp, and I thought, I have to play the grace and society-thing from up here,' she says, gesturing at her torso. 'Suddenly I became aware of different parts of the body and how they can speak.'

After Rada she worked with Chattie Saloman, of Common Stock community theatre, whose work drew heavily on the Grotowski method, a rigorous physical training through movement exercises (one based on observation of a cat, for example) designed to turn an actor into a complete physical vehicle for character. After that came rep, Ayckbourn, seasons at Leatherhead, and what sounds like an inspired casting as a monkey in Aladdin.

She first met Annabel Arden, producer of Theatre de Complicite, at the Traverse in Glasgow and in 1989 landed a part as a crumpled office tea lady in Anything for a Quiet Life. 'And there I was. I met Marcello Magni, who's my partner now . . .' Meeting Complicite, a company with a 'language of movement', was, she says, 'a complete lightbulb'. But it was also bewildering. 'The improvisations were like nothing I'd encountered. There was this sense of play that didn't seem to exist in British theatre.'

Complicite also forced her to go to her physical limits. 'They were very generous, but quite unsentimental. They expected me to do everything. I'd say, I can't jump. And they'd say, Bend your knees] (She stands up, bends, and lifts her arms above her head) Use this] (She points at her ankles) Use this] (She slaps her calves) Use this] (her thighs) And they held me as I bent and jumped, and they pushed me higher and higher, and I thought, Yes] I can jump.'

Now she almost perversely exposes the effects of the crash - her crooked elbow and back, which, as the epileptic prophetess Cassandra in Katie Mitchell's Women of Troy, she bent into frenzied angles; and her foot ('It's got a bit missing, so the toes don't work'), on which she danced, on pointe, in The Skriker.

She is also, like Complicite, quite unafraid of being ugly on stage. 'Maybe because of the physical injury I've never felt the little ingenue type. There is also a joy in celebrating the non-perfect.' Is she attracted to the grotesque and the rejected? 'Oh God, I don't know. When I was playing Clara in The Visit, I never thought, 'Oh what a disgusting freak,' I just worked from the text. I thought she was quite justified in being the way she was, after what happened to her.'

It was with Complicite, too, that she first played male parts, beginning with Mr Big in Help, I'm Alive] 'Every character is an act of imagination. To have a different gender is just more interesting. For the young man in The Skriker, I thought to myself, 'You're being too light: he'd have more footballer-type legs, and hair on his legs and chest; he'd have more weight in the torso.' I had to stop doing all the Kathryn- type things I do with my arms.' It's an exhausting way of working. 'But I feel much more alive when I'm acting - the rest of life becomes much more interesting.'

It's all a world removed from the training she got at Rada: 'The big difference between Rada and Lecoq (where the founders of Complicite trained) is that you emerge from Rada saying, 'I hope someone gives me a job, I hope I fit into some existing framework of theatre' - whereas they leave thinking, 'We are the theatre.' '

Next week she plays another clutch of parts in Pericles, Phyllida Lloyd's directorial debut at the National Theatre. For Hunter, it's a full hat trick: her roles include a man, Antiochus - 'an incestuous tyrant, not a part of fantastic subtlety'; a bawd - 'she runs the brothel where Pericles' virgin daughter stays and can't believe the girl won't fuck'; and Cerimon, the healer, an entirely benevolent, compassionate character - 'That will be a great challenge,' says Hunter.

'Pericles' opens 19 May, Olivier Theatre at the National (071-928 2252)

(Photographs omitted)

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