While indulging his penchant for discussing orgasms, historical figures and necrophilia, Julian Clary’s Michael makes pasta alla puttanesca for his anticipated guest Tim (James Nelson-Joyce) in his clinical kitchen. Who might he be speaking to? Whoever it is (it remains unclear) he’s doing it verse. Why? Why not! Already this feels like an ambitious, if not ill-advised, pilot episode of a cooking show that’s trying to bank on the anti-hero serial killers of the Dexter era. Knives? Yes! Rhymes? Sure! Blood-coloured tomatoes? Perfect! Sizzling smiles that make people deeply uncomfortable? Yes yes yes!
Except that for a play that tries to be so hot and spicy, the temperature of the room never lifts above tepid. Even as Nelson-Joyce joins Clary, both men threaten to kill each other, and Nelson-Joyce gets naked, Le Grand Mort feels like the most petite of gestures. Sex-centric in an impressively boring way and ill-conceived, it tries to justify itself by talking about lust and death drives, about seeking oblivion and seeking perfection, but doesn’t say anything particularly interesting or convincing about anything.
The relationship between the men meanders somewhere between pseudo-eroticism and strangers on a mildly crowded bus. Nelson-Joyce is convincing in his more threatening moments, and Clary delivers some funny lines well, but neither seems comfortable with the other. And that’s not entirely their fault – their brief relationship is crudely drawn and then sliced up, presented in a non-linear fashion to inflate its complexity. This however doesn’t help Clary, who stumbles over his lines in the repetitive scenes.
Justin Nardella’s set gives as much insight into Clary’s character than anything else – a stainless steel (and working) kitchen, clinical and swish, with a Smeg fridge and kettle. With the garishly life-size Vitruvian man sculpture to the side, we might be able to surmise that Michael is interested in symmetry, perfection and men. Might be.
The obvious symbolism aside, it’s actually tricky to know what atmosphere director Christopher Renshaw is trying to cultivate. It moves from light-hearted to intense as Stephen Clark’s script darts between punchline-driven comedy and intense incest-related monologues, but neither reverberates. Music and lighting design obviously highlight the tense moments, making them so obviously sensationalised that it seems like it’s the whole thing might be a comedy, except it is it isn’t very funny.
But the real trouble lies in the shallow and flimsy approach to the subject matter. Clark wedges in traumatic stories from the characters’ past to give them substance, but without any other clues showing who these people are, their stories feel like stolen goods. Whether it be to create complexity or just to shock, the clunky use of subject matter is so misguided that it becomes exploitative, treated without any sort of reflection or care. References to the Rwandan genocide and 9/11 are equally bewildering, and feel like cheap additions to a thin script.
Le Grand Mort might be an attempt to explore the sometimes-taboo and often traumatic undercurrents that drive people’s actions, but is ultimately undercooked and underdone.
Le Grand Mort is on until 28 October 2017 at the Trafalgar Studios. Click here for more details.