La Maladie de la Mort @ The Lyceum

La Maladie de la Mmort is neither great theatre nor cinema, but the synthesis of the two proves thrilling

Review by Jamie Dunn | 17 Aug 2018
  • La Maladie de la Mort

In a chilly, charmless hotel room, two actors, a woman (Laetitia Dosch) and a man (Nick Fletcher), wait patiently. Around them, half a dozen people dressed in black (cinematographers, sound operators, floor managers) scurry to and fro. We could be watching an indie film crew readying for a scene, and we kind of are. But there are less typical sights here too. For one, another actor (Irène Jacob) is lit up in a sound booth stage right. And above the set, there’s a giant screen. Oh, and this curious setup is taking place on the Royal Lyceum stage in front of a full house.

This daring blend of live cinema and theatre is Alice Birch’s update of Marguerite Duras’s La Maladie de la Mort, as directed by Katie Mitchell. Once the piece begins it takes several minutes to adjust to the information overload before us. For the full effect one has to keep an eye on the ordered chaos on stage as the actors, camera crew and stagehands rush to get into position for the next shot while simultaneously taking in the elegant black and white film being projected live above, which rarely betrays the frenzy of action going on outside the camera’s gaze (a few glimpses of boom shadow notwithstanding).

The novelty of seeing cinematic grammar in the theatre space is thrilling. If nothing else, the show proves the power of the close-up, especially when it’s focused on an actor as expressive as Dosch. She plays an unnamed sex worker who pays nightly visits to Fletcher's character, a rather pathetic man who can’t distinguish between thinking he’s lonely and feeling so. His solution, it seems, is to make Dosch’s character submit to his will – “like her ancestors did” for their men. “That’s going to cost more,” she says wryly, before passing him an obscene figure on a piece of paper.

It’s pretty clear from the off who’ll win in this battle of wills, but Dosch’s character initially plays her part in the charade. She demures each night, strips naked, showers for him, but acts of resistance pepper each visit. By the end, it’s him who’s left naked and vulnerable. Throughout this two-hander, Jacob narrates, and the use of the second-person perspective leaves her mysterious voiceover ambiguous. Is she addressing him, her, us, or all three? Pre-recorded scenes of Dosch wandering the beach outside and of a young girl who bears a striking resemblance to Dosch (a flashback, perhaps?) suggests the narration is very much in the woman's favour.

The resulting film is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s a thrilling experiment, and in Dosch we have an actor so compelling that she mesmerises, even when we can see how the sausage is being made around her.


La Maladie de la Mort, The Lyceum, 16-19 Aug, £17-35 – La Maladie De La Mort heads to the Barbican in London 3-6 Oct

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