Tuesday, 21 August 2018

EIF 2018 - La Maladie de la Mort at the Lyceum, or, Here We Go Again

The increasing portability of the film camera is one of the curses of modern theatre. It has enabled this vogue for indifferent films masquerading as staged plays. This show, directed by Katie Mitchell about whose high reputation I remain unconvinced after several encounters, is the latest in what, from where I have been sitting, has been a pretty consistently dismal line of shows (see for other recent examples Ivo van Hove's Kings of War and Network).

This entry breaks no new ground technically. There is a two roomed set of a hotel room and corridor in which most of the action takes place - it is rarely possible to view this action directly because walls are often moved into place to partially obscure it, but nor is it possible to simply watch the film and ignore the camera operators and other technical staff as they scurry about. Above this sits the screen on which the filmed action is projected. There's also a lit booth on the left occupied by the narrator (Irene Jacob) - yes this show also boasts a narrator who spends much time telling us how we should interpret the filmed action.

The narrative, such as it is, is adapted by Alice Birch from Marguerite Duras's novella (which I haven't read and this certainly did not make me want to read). An unnamed man (Nick Fletcher) has hired a sex worker (Laetitia Dosch) who is to come to his hotel room for a series of nights, and do exactly what he tells her so that he can discover whether he is in fact capable of love. Cue a considerable amount of nudity and representation of sexual acts (at least we're spared that other refuge of indifferent theatre - the ineffective barrage of swearing). It's clear from the very beginning that this is a seriously damaged (indeed dangerous) man, so that when the woman states about 40 minutes in - "You're incapable of love" - my immediate response was to want to ask how on earth she'd only just worked this out. The woman is also, we are gradually made aware, a damaged person. This is introduced via rather laboured filmed inserts that show her frequently arriving at a house where, one can easily deduce, something nasty happened in the attic - though I concede I missed my guess as to what the nastiness was. I think we are intended to infer that this trauma is another reason (as well as the money) that she takes part in the man's experiment. There's one other flaw in this narrative. It didn't convince me that the woman stays so long in the experiment but, when the man finally tries to kill her, she fairly easily and so far as I could see with hardly a physical scratch on her succeeds in defeating him. Again I think this is also a place where the stylistic approach undermines drama - the staged nature of the enterprise is made so obvious that, apart from one moment where the man toyed with razor blades, I never really believed anyone was actually in danger of getting hurt.

My overall reaction to all this was one of boredom, with occasional moments of unintentional hilarity - it is nearly always ill advised of shows to make jokes about endings. Personally, I find this whole filming thing a barren directorial approach. I realise, as I've said before, that theatre by its very nature is not realistic but the best theatre in the more traditional mode has frequently persuaded me to believe in the world being represented and to care about the people whose stories are being told. If you start by so firmly asserting the unrealistic nature of the whole thing, as here, I'm afraid I have rarely been persuaded to care about whatever else the show has to say, and this was no different.

It is arguable that there is something fresh being said here about gender relations and the male gaze, but I found it confused and obscured by the directorial approach. Possibly Mitchell was a pioneer of what is apparently termed "live cinema" to begin with, but it is certainly not an original approach now. The actors committed fully to the approach but could not transcend it. If you get something out of film masquerading as theatre no doubt you will appreciate this. Otherwise this is one to avoid when it reaches the Barbican in early October.

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