Theatre review: La Maladie de la Mort, Lyceum Theatre

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In an Edinburgh Festival full of reflections on toxic men and their relationships with women, this new Bouffes du Nord stage version of Marguerite Duras’s novella, created by writer Alice Birch and director Katie Mitchell, confronts that theme with rare intensity.

La Maladie de la Mort, Lyceum Theatre (***)

A man employs a woman to be with him in a seaside hotel, every night for several weeks. He wants to know nothing about her, demands her complete submission, and forbids her to speak; he says that by intensely experiencing her body, he is trying to learn how to love, an emotion he has never experienced.

There are two aspects of Katie Mitchell’s production, though, that tend to work against Duras’s radical, dreamlike investigation of a dysfunctional male psyche. The first is the decision to make this a narrative about pornography and voyeurism, delivered through vivid black and white film and video, and – in a dark space beneath the screen – the shadowy live action in the hotel room, constantly filmed by a camera crew. At the Lyceum, the screen dominates the show so completely that it’s difficult to notice or engage with the live performers at all.

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Then secondly, in making the show, Birch and Mitchell have developed the female character much more fully than Duras does, which makes the show seem more complicit than it should with our culture’s habit of staring voyeuristically at women in sexual situations; and of slightly sidelining the male character, as if his “illness” was not the subject of the story.

Laetitia Dosch turns in a wonderful performance as the woman who fights for her life, and emerges as the heroine of her own movie; Irene Jacob’s live narration is exquisite.

But we remain distant from the man at the centre of narrative, whose inner life Duras strives so mightily to explore, before he becomes the death of us all.