Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s adaptation of The Malady of Death, the 1982 novella by Marguerite Duras, is technically audacious. Using a by now familiar mixture of performance, live and pre-recorded video, it’s impeccably choreographed and precisely designed.
In Duras’ story, written in the second person, a man pays money to a woman to spend time with him. He says he wants to learn how to love, but seems incapable of feeling it, or even comprehending what it might feel like to love. He walks and talks and breathes, but feels he’s not alive in the fullest sense. He holes up in a hotel room by the sea. She comes and goes but cannot penetrate his cocoon, cannot breathe life into him.
Mitchell’s production, part of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord residency at this year’s Edinburgh International festival, is performed in French with English surtitles. Designer Alex Eales has created an almost aggressively anonymous hotel room, with blank, beige walls, alongside a strip of corridor.
The man (Nick Fletcher) and the woman (Laetitia Dosch) spend much of their time together in this room naked. They don’t talk. Sometimes he watches pornography or simply watches her through the camera lens of his phone, in an act of anti-intimacy, zooming in on her skin. A wall of the set is occasionally used to mask the performers further, hiding them from the view of the audience so only the camera can see them.
A sense of emotional disconnection is built into the production. A team of camera operators and technicians follow the couple’s every movement, hovering over their bodies, perching at the end of the bed like a flock of black birds – or maybe demons. The lens catches everything. It is merciless, intimate, and clinical.
The black and white footage is projected above the set, interspersed with pre-recorded scenes featuring the woman’s memories or brief glimpses of the world outside this room. She is given backstory, a child, a connection to the world. He remains a void. French actor Irene Jacob, sitting in a sound-proof booth, at the side of the stage, narrates the story. The mechanics of the production force the audience to examine what they are seeing (and not seeing), feeling (and not feeling).
Birch previously collaborated with Mitchell on the extraordinary Anatomy of a Suicide, a play of interweaving stories that explored the legacy of suicide, the way it can ripple through families. This theme recurs here. Death haunts the stage, as does the prospect of male violence.
The form of Mitchell’s production, the way it plays with the gaze, resisting and embracing it, is potent and hypnotic yet also numbing and frustrating: it feels at times as if Mitchell has created an immaculately engineered refrigerator.