Katie Mitchell’s uncompromising adaptation of La Maladie De La Mort offers as little escape for the audience as it does for its characters – but is too clinicial to elicit the emotions you ought to feel.
When seeing a Katie Mitchell play, I’ve come to expect two things: video projection of the live action and the focus of the narrative to be on women. Both apply to her latest (loose) adaptation of Marguite Duras’ novel La Maladie De La Mort, presented here at the Lyceum as part of Edinburgh International Festival. Though a compelling watch, there’s no X-Factor so to speak – nothing that really makes it stand out as the unmissable show of the Summer.
The story of a man (Nick Fletcher) who’s never loved in his life, and tries to awaken the feeling by paying a woman (Laetitia Dosch) to visit him every night and submit silently to him without complaint. The story of a woman, a single mother, who endures all this abuse to be able to give her son an enjoyable childhood. As you can imagine, neither side of this tale is light – to see La Maladie De La Mort means to dedicate your evening to uncomfortable truths of the world we live in.
And the sights are often uncomfortable – whether realistically depictions of brutality when the man overpowers the woman, or, in the quieter and more pensive moments, we see the emptiness and pain in their eyes. La Maladie De La Mort offers as little escape for the audience as it does for the characters.
Using Duras’ novel as a starting point is an interesting premise, but regardless of which character you focus your attention on, there’s something missing in the performance. It is never quite uncomfortable enough to make you think. It never goes deep enough into a character to try and have you understand. It’s too clinical to elicit the emotions you ought to feel.
While video projections give Mitchell a tool to build a backstory to the woman, one which is not present in the book (a single mother of a boy), the live-action recording very often feels counter-effective. Yes, we do watch it more than the live bodies on the stage (we’re of course pre-programmed, these days, to look for – and find comfort in – a screen wherever we go). But it offers a wall and a barrier, it makes it easier to watch, easier to handle the emotions. In La Maladie De La Mort, combining film with theatre doesn’t work to illuminate new insight, but rather conceals us from something. It helps us stay accomplices to the man, supporters of video (he is an avid porn-watcher) over people, of safe dullness over emotion. But then, maybe that insight into our own behaviour was the very aim?