In Don DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding, a man is locked in a persistent vegetative state by the second stroke of his life. Then, efforts made to end any suffering he might be feeling by his family seem too difficult to see through to the end. His death is going wrong (can it ever go right?). As the play opens, we hear about the man in question’s own first memory of seeing a dead person, on the subway as a child with his father: nobody seemed to notice, then.
In Jack McNamara’s production, Alex (Joe McGann) looks not unlike the dead man on the subway, as his son (Jack Wilkinson), ex-wife (Josie Lawrence) and current wife (Clare Indrani) weigh between them whether a fatal dose of morphine is the humane and right thing to administer to this too-still patriarch. He was an artist, they reflect between themselves: he had given up painting for massive sculptures. He loved desert flowers.
Love-Lies-Bleeding is one of those show which seem made for production shots to be taken of it. In Lily Arnold’s set design, a mirror at the back of the stage is shown to be glass, which allows for things to appear and disappear within it (shadowy landscape, the lights of a train, rain, the characters). The play opens on the most stylish of living rooms situated on plush wooden panelling, and around it, desert sand. It’s glossy, quiet and considered, but let down by strange aural oversights – we hear the clear sound of a blind going up behind the glass, ready to reveal someone, during an otherwise still moment, and when the actors move sometimes we hear the shallow, hollow scrape of their feet on the plastic tarp under the sand.
All four actors are certainly proficient – one dodgy accent aside – and do their best with the fact that DeLillo’s writing means that they all talk in much the same manner, which is intellectual and at length. Love-Lies-Bleeding is text-heavy in the extreme, and a different production might have done something drastic to simply get everything a bit more animated. Even daring to lean into alienating the audience might have yielded something; as it is, each actor is at the same level of intensity, which doesn’t vary, whether going over a memory of Alex or moving towards ending his life. The humour isn’t quite brought out from the snappier, wry lines, such as “There’s something generic about him. He’s like someone who’s like him.” It lands like any other line, to no real effect.
Despite this, performers Lawrence and Indrani do bring across the grief and confusion of Alex’s past and current wives (Indrani, as Lia, is especially regal and incensed at the idea of ending her husband’s life while there’s the chance that he may be able to hear her). Everything is so poised, from their turns to stand before us and deliver a funeral speech, to their slow entrances and exits. The text isn’t for dealing with quickly either: “The three survivors. Bare bones in triplicate,” Lawrence observes at one point; that’s not to be stumbled over. There’s a sense that someone wants each single line to really be heard and thought over. However, the lack of diversity of tone creates a soporific effect, and the lines fail to touch.
“Life is heat, it’s motion,” we’re told, but the closest we get to that here is the repeated rumbling of trains, flashing up as if reflected in the glass. There, and then gone.
Love Lies Bleeding is on at Print Room at The Coronet until 8th December. More info here.