First published in The Times, Monday August 20 2018
In Marguerite Duras’s 1982 novella, The Malady of Death, a man pays a woman to spend time with him at a seaside hotel in order that he might “try to love”. The author sought to recreate on the page the immediacy of the theatre: the spare text is reminiscent of a script with stage directions. At one point, Duras describes the room in which her characters meet as a “theatre”.
Unsurprisingly, the book has been adapted for stage numerous times, though never as irreverently as this piece, seen at the Edinburgh International Festival, from the celebrated director Katie Mitchell for Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. The breathless hour-long work expands upon Mitchell’s “live cinema” technique, developed in shows such as The Forbidden Zone, about the German chemist, Clara Immerwahr.
© Stephen Cummiskey
Here, the stage becomes a film studio, peopled by actors weaving among crew lugging cameras, trailing cables and lifting microphones. Footage of the live action combines with pre-recorded scenes to create a seamless narrative, which we watch on the large screen above the performers’ heads.
The major innovation of this adaptation, scripted by Alice Birch, is one of point of view. Where Duras’s novella is written in the second person, with the female character described throughout as “Elle”, Mitchell’s technique allows for a greater balance of perspectives, with the woman’s (played by Laetitia Dosch) being the more acute and nuanced. While the male character (Nick Fletcher) never leaves the prison of his hotel room, we often see the woman in different settings and guises, whether relaxing on the beach, avoiding eye contact with a stranger in an elevator or nonchalantly spraying herself with deodorant in the hotel corridor.
© Stephen Cummiskey
The show subverts our expectations in other ways. The opening scene, in which the man asks the woman to undress, surrounded by filmmaking equipment, looks like an audition for a porn movie. There is something witty, too, about the casting of Irène Jacob, the iconic screen actor, as the narrator. She spends the show locked in a sound booth at the side of the stage.
Mitchell’s approach may sound academic, but her subjective focus on faces and imperfect naked bodies in fact makes for a moving experience. As rewritten by Birch, the text becomes a meditation on perception and gazes (“I can’t see anything!” is the male character’s despairing refrain), which means that the form and tone of Mitchell’s work is in perfect harmony with its ideas.