The male gaze is so pervasive—informing almost every art form in our society at almost every level—that, most of the time, it's not even something we notice. In La Maladie de la Mort, director Katie Mitchell and playwright Alice Birch are flipping the script, portraying a woman who, not content with being merely looked upon, becomes the onlooker.
This compelling production, the latest in Mitchell’s series of live cinema theatre shows, is based on a 1982 novella by Marguerite Duras in which a man takes a woman to a hotel by the sea and keeps her there for weeks so he can learn "how to love". With a film crew scuttling around them—they're creating footage that appears on a screen above the stage, intercut with previously filmed material to add context to the febrile atmosphere in the hotel room—Laetitia Dosch and Nick Fletcher enact this twisted sexual compact, with Irène Jacob as a dispassionate, lyrical narrator providing voiceover from a booth at stage right. Dosch and Fletcher give incredibly nuanced performances – when The Woman touches up a black eye with make up, it's hard not to wince along with her.
It's easy to get distracted by the technological trickery, to spend time thinking about how the crew is achieving certain shots or scene changes rather than the staying focused on the characters, but this format is highly effective in putting us in their shoes and highlighting the ways we present different sides of ourselves to suit different circumstances. It also serves to strip any hint of allure from the graphic sex scenes that punctuate the action: Mitchell clearly doesn't have much time for the mainstream porn industry.
While not exactly a happily ever after ending—is there such a thing in French theatre?—there's a sense of triumph in the way that The Woman takes back control, making The Man finally recognise himself as the pathetic individual she sees straight through from the start.