There’s a line at the end of La Maladie de la Mort, the late period novella by Marguerite Duras that translates to English as The Malady of Death. ‘The Malady of Death’ it states, ‘could be staged in the theatre.’ There then follows several pages of musings regarding any staging of her story that are as meticulously detailed as anything Samuel Beckett might have written regarding movement, stage pictures and possible use of film, only to end with a typically elliptical and deliciously contrary ‘All this by way of general suggestion.’
More than thirty years after the French-born novelist, playwright and film-maker penned her first person study of intimate exchanges, director Katie Mitchell and writer Alice Birch have risen to the challenge with a provocative and daring staging of Duras’ book.
Created for the Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord and co-produced with numerous European partners, including Edinburgh International Festival, Mitchell’s production now arrives in Edinburgh as part of EIF’s season of work presented by the Paris-based centre where Peter Brook has been based since 1974.
While retaining the essence of Duras’ story about a man and the woman he hires to spend several weeks with him in a hotel in the vain hope of discovering love, Mitchell and Birch are also looking to subvert the traditions of the male gaze to reinvent it in a way which has accidentally chimed with the rise of the #MeToo age.
“It’s a piece with a secret,” says Mitchell of both the play and the book it is freely adapted from. “The syntax of the prose writing is so beautiful, but here is a man whose attempts to love are always frustrated. Why did he have this malady, and why was this woman able to sort it?
“Looking at it now in terms of gender politics, quite a few things need addressing. Third way feminism had come in during the 1980s, and that put paid to a lot of particulars when Alice and I started to look at it. Why would a woman go to a room with a man and do everything that man wanted her to do?”
To try and contextualise this, Birch and Mitchell have made the woman a sex worker in a hi-tech production which puts two actors onstage as they are filmed, with live black and white footage of the couple’s intimacies running alongside a voice-over by international actress Irene Jacob. This raises issues of voyeurism, the numbing effects of online pornography and the patriarchal notion of the male gaze again.
“Looking at Duras’ own relationship to feminism, I realised it was ambivalent,” says Mitchell.
The last time a work by Duras appeared at EIF was in 1998, when Flemish wunderkind Ivo van Hove brought his staging of India Song to Edinburgh. Originally commissioned by the National Theatre in 1972, it remained unproduced, and was filmed in 1975. Van Hove took the play and turned it into a sensuous experience without a word spoken onstage. Since then, sightings of Duras’ work has been rare. Only this year did her work appear on the same stage as La Maladie de la Mort, when the Lyceum produced an adaptation of what is probably Duras’ most famous novel, The Lover, notoriously filmed through a very male looking glass in 1992.
Duras was in her sixties when she wrote La Maladie de la Mort, and had a long back catalogue that moved between prose, drama and film, consistently reinventing works for each medium as she went. In this respect, the sparseness of her prose works lends itself to be made flesh onstage with ease. As for challenging the patriarchy, “We’ve got a lot to do,” says Mitchell, “and I’m always optimistic.”
Mitchell quotes playwright Caryl Churchill.
“I remember her saying to me that feminism is a movement that’s only been around for a hundred years, and that maybe we need to be patient.”
La Maladie de la Mort, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 16-18, 8pm, August 18-19, 3pm.
The Herald, August 14th 2018