Katie Mitchell’s The Malady of Death is a circuit board of severed wires, a complex pattern of disconnection where the insulating materials have been scratched back to reveal the sharp, sparking wires beneath. Its disturbing brilliance lies in displaying a series of detachments: the gaping voids located between people, art forms and desires.
Adapted by Alice Birch from Marguerite Duras’s novella, La Maladie de la Mort, it’s a play that first requires a basic description to make sense of it. A depressed man pays a sex worker to repeatedly meet with him in a hotel room so that he can attempt to overcome his inability to love or relate to another human. This is the first, and most obvious, element of disconnection in the work, the division that exists between the man (Nick Fletcher) and the woman (Laetitia Dosch). Firstly, because he is emotionally impotent and, secondly, because he is in charge and she is financially obligated to carry out his wishes.
The majority of the scenes are performed live, but filmed simultaneously and broadcast onto a video screen located onstage above the performers. To the left of the stage, Irène Jacob sits in an audio-recording booth and periodically narrates the action. Mitchell’s format creates several additional layers of disjuncture. Some, but not all, of the scenes shown on screen are also visible on stage, whilst others are conducted behind doors or in semi-concealed parts of the playing space. During the parts that can be seen both onstage and screen, the audience has a choice of where to watch.
We go to the theatre to see, or even be part of, a live event. Part of the basic attraction of theatre is watching someone perform right there and then, no room for error, no possibility of rewinding, pausing or replaying this exact same moment. I know this, the beauty of ephemerality, to be one of the reasons I go to the theatre. It’s why, in a roundabout way, I am watching The Malady of Death at all. So why do my eyes automatically return again and again to the screen even when I deliberately try to watch the stage instead? The screen is somehow a giant magnet, immediately giving everything a fairydusting of cinematic glamour.
The division between stage and screen is, necessarily, another variation on the theme of disconnect. But it goes beyond just being about theatre vs cinema and becomes more about the barrier screens create between real life and the version of it we consume. The man pays the woman to come to his room each night. Once there he mainly does one of two things: fucking her in clammy silence, or filming her. The second activity, it seems, interests him much more. His camera phone traverses her body, at one point zooming in on her belly button (interestingly, the most important site representing connection and life on the body of any mammal), and at another taking the recorded footage into the bathroom and closing the door on her.
To put it crudely, he is a man who would rather have a picture to wank to, than a woman to fuck. When she is not there he watches porn with general disinterest, slamming the laptop lid closed without any need or urge to get to the climax. One of the points being made is clear, that porn-on-tap establishes and reiterates more and more disconnection between real-life sex and on-screen sex. But there’s also the other question of whether this is just true for sex, or if it’s also true for the avocado on toast photographed before being eaten, or the live event watched through the phone screen held aloft to record it as it happens. Do screens take the desire, the taste, the moment-ness of the moment away? When I watch the screen in the Barbican instead of the performers onstage, am I deducting something from my own experience of the play, disconnecting from the realness of the humans on stage and our one shared moment together?
The intermittent narration functions as another version of the screen, in that it temporarily kids you into thinking it’s adding more to the experience taking place, rather than deducting from it. Strictly speaking, there is no need for a narrator here – the audience could easily follow the action without the additional commentary – but the presence of a third-person voice is another element of the out-of-body experience that is watching Mitchell’s play. The narrator is the equivalent of the mentally-drafted tweet composed whilst the hilarious/traumatic/edifying event took place. It’s the pre-emptive recording of reality, the viewing of yourself as if from above or through the eyes of other people reading social media. It’s an extra layer of remove, one that makes me continuously aware that here I am, in the auditorium of the Barbican, watching a play through a video screen.
And then there’s the detachment of the screen altogether from the events happening in the room when short pre-recorded clips are played. Flashbacks of the woman’s childhood appear, the difference between the schoolgirl with backpack and warm coat, and the woman in skimpy slip-dress and stilettos, unavoidably toe-curling. The reminder that the sex worker and single mother the man is able to purchase in order to help address his psychological needs, is the same human as this little girl stings repeatedly. The child uses a chubby key to unlock her family home, whilst the woman gains entry to the hotel room with a key card. Everything about this adult world is wipe-clean, commoditised. Even doors (symbolic or literal) aren’t unlocked with healthy click, but are flung open with the swipe of plastic.
The title of the work, The Malady of Death, comes from the woman’s diagnosis of the man’s condition as suicidal depression – she’s seen it before. Thanatos in overdrive as he makes a pathetic attempt to combat it with Eros. His pain, then, is at the centre of this scenario, whilst to him the woman is nothing more than the over-the-counter medicine to help get rid of it. Perhaps that is the biggest disconnect of all, the gendered separation of the characters onstage.
But there’s a final image Mitchell uses that hints at someone far outside of debates about internet porn, iPhones and narrated theatre. Against all this human discord is the wide-open sea, the waves rolling and out with reassuring familiarity. The man’s problems never look smaller than when set against the oceanic backdrop (the woman, funnily enough, is the one who returns to the beach to watch the water). Screens or no screens, porn or no porn, does the sea care? Probably not.
I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver
I go down to the shore in the morning
And depending on the hour the waves
Are rolling in or moving out,
And I say, oh, I am miserable,
What shall –
What should I do? And the sea says
In its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
The Malady of Death was performed at the Barbican from 3 – 6 October 2018. Click here for more details.