The Malady of Death at the Barbican Theatre review ***

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The Malady of Death

Barbican Theatre, 3rd October 2018

I took a bit of persuading (of myself, by myself, this was never going to be an easy sell to any of the usual companions) to pitch up to this. No doubting the pedigree of the creative team. Alice Birch, (Lady Macbeth, Anatomy of a Suicide, Ophelia’s Zimmer, Revolt She Said Revolt Again), adapting Marguerite Duras’ 1982 novella which tells the story of a man who pays a woman to spend weeks with him so that he can “learn” how to love. Directed by Katie Mitchell, no introduction needed. Under the auspices of the legendary Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. And which came to London, via Edinburgh, with some fulsome reviews.

Of course the subject, a “provocative” dissection of the male gaze, complete with nudity, live video and on-stage narration from French acting royalty in the form of Irene Jacob (Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Double Life of Veronique, Three Colours Red), screams controversial. Nick Fletcher was The Man, holed up in a hotel room by the sea, watching pornography, desperate to “feel” something, and motivated, by the “malady of death”, I guess his own empty alienation, to “use” Laetitia Dosch’s The Woman, who has her own childhood trauma to excise. By examining the narrative of the story from both perspectives, literally using the video projection, we get to ponder just who has agency here in an intimate relationship between man and women. Alice Birch has re-written The Woman as a sex worker and single mother, (M. Duras reveals nothing of her background), to open out the correspondence and, as the nights progress, there is a clear shift in power even though She can offer no resistance or make no sound. When she finally does it is to goad and diagnose him.

Now there is no denying that this is an impressive technical achievement as the two camera-people (one man, one woman) and stage managers, as well as the actors, shift balletically through Alex Eales’ set (he also designed the costumes, such as they were). The live video was mixed seamlessly with pre-recorded footage (the sea, flashbacks of the Woman’s childhood) in Ingi Bekk’s design under Grant Gee’s direction. Paul Clark’s composition, Donato Wharton’s sound and Anthony Doran’s detailed lighting all added to the sense of clinically polished auteurship. Unfortunately for me this triumph of style, together with the narration and sur-titles, (the production is in French natch), only served to add distance to this indeterminate story. For such an intense subject it all felt curiously lifeless and maybe just a little, dare I say it, passe. These techniques can illuminate, here they served to obfuscate. Of course this idea of how the Man and the Woman “see” each other in an intimate, here transactional, relationship, is expanded through the use of video. A series of screens and compartments on stage push the audience into making choices about what to watch. At one point The Man using his phone to film the Woman in turn filmed by the cameras. Points made though there feels like there is nowhere else for us to go.

I suppose this inauthenticity, the absence of true emotion, the detachment, the sense of voyeurism, (a parody of art-house porn), exactly reflects what M. Duras was trying to say, but it does make for un-involving theatre. In stark contrast to Alice Birch and Katie Mitchell’s last outing, Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court, one of last year’s best, and most emotionally involving, plays (Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre review *****). It could be that my own identity leaves me entirely unequipped to understand the narrative here. Certainly worth a look. After all if I don’t challenge myself then how will I be, er, challenged.

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