Political theatre returns

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Simultaneously banal and chilling: La Maladie de la Mort. Pic: Stephen Cummiskey

La Maladie de la Mort (The Malady of Death), based upon Marguerite Duras’s 1982 novella (which was, famously, written in the depths of the author’s alcoholism), was one of the highlights of last month’s Edinburgh International Festival. Staged for the leading French company Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord by acclaimed English director Katie Mitchell, it is an atmospheric and discomfiting hour of theatre.

The play relays episodes from the deeply alienated sexual encounters between an unnamed man and the (also unnamed) woman he pays to visit him in his seaside hotel room every day over a period of time. The man claims that he seeks this contact in the hope of experiencing feelings of love for the first time. However, his desire to direct and (sometimes violently) control the woman owes more to his addiction to hardcore pornography.

Alice Birch, who wrote this stage adaptation, and Mitchell shift the focus of Duras’s narrative. In the novella the woman is not a prostitute. Here she appears to be a young single mother who is working in prostitution in order to raise her young child.

The action is presented by means of live and recorded film, live, radio-style narration (from within a booth on stage) and a constant, premonitory soundtrack. The effect is an intense, brilliantly sustained atmosphere which is simultaneously banal, chilling and often frightening. It is powerfully evocative of both the physical risks faced by, and the absence of pleasure for, the woman and the joyless, alienated life and sexuality of the man.

The performances by Laetitia Dosch (The Woman) and Nick Fletcher (The Man) are superb; hers reflecting a terrible, resigned pragmatism, his the desolation of his soul (which The Woman rightly diagnoses as the malady of death).

Arguably the finest new play on the Edinburgh Fringe was Ulster American. The piece was written by Scotland-based playwright David Ireland (who was raised in Belfast) and directed for Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Company by Gareth Nicholls.

The play is a gloriously ferocious political farce. It brings together (in a London flat) the combustible trio of Jay Conway (an Irish-American Hollywood actor whose ego is as big as his reputation), Leigh Carver (a painfully liberal English theatre director) and Ruth Davenport (a Northern Irish, Protestant playwright whose politics are at hilarious odds with the varied expectations of both Conway and Carver).

The production combines superb, high-octane performances (especially from Darrell D’Silva and Lucianne McEvoy, who are monstrous as Conway and Davenport) with razor sharp, viciously funny, satirical humour. Writer Ireland’s taste for politics and violence has shades of the great Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh, but also feels like a cross between the work of the genius Italian playwright Dario Fo and the films of Quentin Tarantino.

If this play isn’t revived, and soon, those responsible will have a lot to answer for.

La Maladie de la Mort, directed by Katie Mitchell, is at the Barbican, London, from 3 to 6 October. Ulster American by David Ireland was at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh