Theatre Review: The Malady of Death, Barbican Theatre ‘Tired’

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One of the interesting things you wrestle with as a critic is how much attention and weight you should give to the creatives of a show. What I mean is, if the creatives are box office names, are we obliged to give them greater latitude/spend more time weighing up what we see, or should we go in with a completely blank slate – whatever the show – and judge it simply on what is in front of us?

I ask because, I’ll be frank, I really didn’t like The Malady of Death. I found it tired – I thought its subject matter tired and its execution tired. But when you are aware that this is an Alice Birch and Katie Mitchell collaboration and adaptation of a Marguerite Duras novel, should I spend some time picking over what I witnessed? Do I owe them greater respect because of their achievements?

My instinct is No. Nobody should be ringfenced.

And, so, we follow a woman and a man – a sex worker and her client – through their extended ‘relationship’ as she spends night after night after night with him in a hotel room. Only this is a very unsettling set up. The man (Nick Fletcher) is evidently emotionally damaged and violent, He is as obsessed with watching her sleep as he is with watching pornography, whilst the woman (Laetitia Dosch) is haunted by a childhood experience which plays out in fragments in a video screen above the stage.

To be frank, I’m not here for violence against women on stage. I’m bored with it, it’s dangerous, and if creatives are going to tackle it, it must be done with caution and I didn’t feel that here at all. The man supposedly suffers from this ‘malady of death’ and the writing here looks to challenge the power dynamics by subverting the man’s financial power by portraying the woman as having a greater capacity for life and living, more vibrant, than the man. That she wins.

I would argue there are better ways to examine that theme than this.

I get that Katie and Alice are interested in the power structures that enable patriarchal oppression and male violence, but this is common territory now and I want and expect more to be done with this subject matter than simple representation.

The production may only be an hour long, but it is graphic – full of sex, pornography and extended nudity. It is Katie Mitchell after all, so I wasn’t expecting skipping and sunny days, but it is interesting how numb I am to this now. There’s nothing shocking and, like I said, we’ve seen this before. Even an attempt to discern between the male gaze and female gaze doesn’t come off – and I would argue is tricky territory as it infers that there can be a clean difference.

We’ve also seen the set before. Hotel corridors and rooms have been configured on stage for characters and stage assistants to come and go, much like Written on Skin. But much of our direct line of sight is obscured by a film crew who shoot intimate close-ups of the actors and their bodies for these images to be relayed on the big screen above our heads. And the fragmented nature of the story as it plays out is reminiscent of Cleansed.

So, look, I’ll never be able to, and wouldn’t want to, dissuade aficionados of Mitchell/Birch to give this one a miss but, all I’m saying is, there’s nothing new here. And given how much I loved their previous collaboration, Anatomy of a Suicide, that’s the biggest disappointment of all. It doesn’t have that tenderness and intimacy, and that is sorely missed. Anatomy was new, this is old. Time to move on, I feel.

Barbican Centre, London, to October 6, 2018
Tickets from £16.
All production images by Stephen Cummiskey.

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