The outer shell of the stage recedes to reveal a different kind of artifice. Film crew and stage-hands in black tend to final preparations, as the actors linger patiently, meeting each other’s eyes in anticipatory confirmation. Lights relinquish, and the narrator (Irène Jacob) takes her place inside the sound booth at the front of the stage.
Glaring into monochrome life, the screen centred above the theatre-film set hybrid navigates us through Alice Birch’s hour-long adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s 1982 novella. Having never felt love for a woman, The Man (Nick Fletcher) hires The Woman (Laetitia Dosch) to visit his room each night. To stay silent; to stand naked; to dissect the outside of her body with his cold hands. Echoing intermittently, Jacob’s voice asks as subtitles interpret: “Is she managing to make your body less lonely?”
The unrelenting greyness of the screen perpetuates The Man’s deficiency of love; its beauty and joy. A dullness he tries to escape or suppress – whether through sex or killing. Though ultimately it is one he must continue to endure, self-embedded to the bloodless eyes that are unable to move beyond the skin.
Katie Mitchell’s examination of the male gaze, and the translatable oppression she presents is familiar and uncomfortable. Birch’s positioning of the audience as The Man comments on societal defaults of perception and confronts us to challenge our own.
Through her niche of live cinema, Mitchell manages to create a world beyond that usually possible in the proscenium arch. Simultaneously allowing for detailed expression of the politics of seeing, whilst preventing the possibility of detachment that film allows – it is cinema without distance, with the stage as a reminder; closing the space between imagination and reality.
Low, stunted hums underscore most of the work; a reverse-synaesthesia for the screen. Helping to fuel the feeling of endlessness created by the repetitive and episodic structure of the piece. Its continued presence submerges the audience into the muted rhythm, in which the scarce divergences are severe and jarring.
The Malady of Death (La Maladie de la mort) is complex both in its content and form, challenging the audience to reconsider their position in both. A known champion for super-realism, Mitchell’s live cinema approach may initially appear as a parting from this, yet it is an evolution. Though the machinery of the spectacle is revealed, the result is not the absence of reality, rather a multiplication of it.
The Malady of Death (La Maladie de la mort) is playing Barbican Theatre until 6 October. For more information and tickets, click here.