The Malady of Death at the Barbican
Taking as its launchpad a novella about a dysfunctional sexual relationship and moulded by the fiercely feminist pairing of director Katie Mitchell and writer Alice Birch, The Malady of Death is bold in its exploration of gender inequality. The sprawling Barbican Theatre is an apt container for this ambitious multimedia venture. A naturalistic hotel room set swarms with cameramen/women, a huge screen above shows the live film they’re capturing and a narrator sits in a soundproof box to the side, telling the tale in the original French. Subtitles show on the screen.
A nameless man pays a nameless woman (a sex worker) to spend several nights with him so he can try to feel something, maybe even love. A noble aim, it would seem, but the ensuing nights see him forbid her to speak, to arrange her pliant body for photographs, to engage in rough sex and even to commit bodily violence against her. Intermittent shots of the man watching pornography give a hint at how he’s become desensitised to women’s feelings. We see a tortured, damaged man and we see a woman who has become used to being used by men, but who is able to assert agency when things go too far.
Because of the camera crew who transmit the action onto the huge screen above, we see a very orchestrated, particular angle of the woman: the male gaze. Narrator Irène Jacob reads in the second person narrative (“YOU watch her sleep”), which is true to Duras’s novel and again reinforces the male perspective.
The slick production boasts some satisfying nuggets of theatrical trickery: sometimes the film breaks away from the action on stage and takes a different path, a moment you’d miss if you weren’t looking closely. Although the media interplay is impressive, the eye is mostly drawn to the screen and precludes taking in the action onstage, where the sight lines are poor thanks to the many-walled set and movements of the photographers. There’s an arthouse stylishness to the play that, while easy to admire, can’t help but feel a little alienating.
Laetitia Dosch and Nick Fletcher as the woman and the man are naturalistic and deserve kudos for spending the one-hour stage time almost always naked and intrusively filmed close-up.
The Malady of Death has its inscrutable moments but at its best it is a challenging, relevant and good-looking piece of theatre that fans of French film or of novelist Marguerite Duras will particularly appreciate.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
The Malady of Death is at the Barbican from 3rd until 6th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.