In Marguerite Duras’s novella, a man hires a woman to live in a hotel room with him, to be watched and appreciated, in the hope that he may learn to feel. Translating this idea to a stage may be challenging, but Katie Mitchell’s multimedia production aims to combine the intimacy of cinema with the immediacy of theatre by filming the performance on stage and projecting it onto a large screen above it.
The film is shot with care to capture the subtlety of the cast’s performances, and the cinematography takes priority in every sense. The intention is to dissociate the audience from the on-stage action, with a Brechtian nakedness to the stage featuring a roughly cut set, a sound box, technicians and coordinators in plain view – all of which contrasts with the sleek film above. The issue is that La Maladie de la Mort feels as though the theatre has been stripped from it.
For the moment, let us assume that the entire audience can understand French and do not have to watch the screen for the subtitles. Even then, they cannot watch the stage. The actors are blocked by obstacles of cameras, equipment, technicians, and even walls that the actors are hidden behind. The audience end up watching the screen and it almost doesn’t matter that it is being performed live beneath it.
The unnamed characters, performed by Laetitia Dosch and Nick Fletcher, are described with a pretentious etherealness that gives them little-to-no character development. The voice-over muses wistfully that “you’ll never know what she is thinking”, and similar meaningless admirations of her mystique and beauty. His character, in trying to show his numbness to emotion, objects to everything she does, screams in the shower and makes love to her aggressively, the latter of which may look sexy and dangerous onscreen, but onstage simply looks daft. The performances are wooden, but who can blame them when they have so little to work with?
The show walks a line between being critical of the male gaze and endorsing it. The Woman is certainly independent, but she is spoken about so dreamily that it is difficult to determine that his behaviour is not being condoned. It is open to interpretation, uncomfortably so. La Maladie de la Mort may push the boundaries of theatre, but it forgets its audience in the process.