The Malady of Death is billed as a piece of theatre, yet I seem to have spent most of the last hour looking at a screen. It’s the latest work in a genre that its creator, stage director Katie Mitchell, has dubbed Live Cinema; film that is simultaneously created and consumed. We see actors and technical crew scurry about to capture the scenes, and projected above is the live screening, cutting together the output of the two onstage cameras with occasional shots from the outside world. Here two mediums give perspective on a third; writer Alice Birch has adapted Marguerite Duras’ novel La Maladie de la Mort, a claustrophobic examination of a mans need for intimacy and to exert control over a woman. The cinematic elements are remarkably restrained: shot on black and white film, with just one set, simple lighting, and a single narrator boxed in a sound-studio to the side.

Nothing here is glamourised: the cinematography is built around a stark and close examination of bodies. The cameras work to quickly desensitise the audience to the near-constant nudity and to desexualise the action. The set at times looks like a porn shoot: two naked actors, and two cameras, two stagehands, and a boom mic looking on. Where the stage can often feel so real and immediate, here it enforces its fakeness to see actors ducking under cables or interrupted by the change of shot. The screen presents a smooth and seamless narrative, but the stage lays bare that falsity. 

The film and stage conspire to ensure nothing is hidden from us: the set throws open the fourth wall of the grubby hotel room, exposing his seedy lifestyle; the cameras probe invasively into every private moment, with tortured close-ups of the characters talking, weeping, sleeping. The floating screen above is strangely voyeuristic, a too-intimate eye into an interaction both try to keep private. In seeking to “know” the woman, the man explores her every physical property; the camera’s lens is flipped and focused on him.

Perspective is critical here, and is examined with the surgical precision and deconstruction we have grown to expect from Katie Mitchell. There are two camera operators on stage, one male, one female – and through their lenses, she explores our gendered gaze. Where the male camera sweeps up the woman’s legs, the female cuts close to her bemused expression; after one violent episode, the female camera stays low with the victim whilst the male swoops high and detached. There is no objectivity in filmmaking, and Mitchell wields behind-the-camera action powerfully to manipulate our view.

The cameras also allow us to peak outside the hotel room and to glimpse into the life of the woman, and it’s clear she lives in a way he doesn’t. We see her exist outside their interactions, whether it’s sitting on the beach or talking on the phone or avoiding eye contact with a stranger in a lift. The man never leaves. He paces fitfully, watches porn, and screams into the shower curtain. The piece defies a victim-abuser binary – she may suffer physically and mentally at his hands, but she walks away free and alive. He remains trapped in a prison of his own design and by his own willing incarceration, perhaps already dead.

When The Malady of Death finally ends, I catch myself releasing a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. It’s not an ending that prompts immediate and rapturous applause, so much as immense relief that it’s all over. Like much of Mitchell’s work, it is gruelling by necessity – in her own words, “How do you critique something without exposing what it does?” And so she sets out to critique patriarchy by showing its slow, taxing oppression. It is effective and fascinating and powerful, but not an easy watch.

4/5

The Malady of Death is one of our 9 Alternative Theatre Openings in October


Image: Stephen Cummiskey/The Barbican

Theatre Editor
Matt has just finished four years of mathematics at University College London, and is now taking the logical next step of pursuing a career in theatre. As well as an avid critic, he is a passionate director and producer, with credits including Protest Song at the Camden People's Theatre and Rhinoceros at The Shaw.

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