FringeReview UK 2018
Jack McNamara directs the UK premiere of Don DeLillo’s 2005 Loves-Lies-Bleeding. Lily Arnold’s set and mainly dressed-down costumery involves a transparent rectangle. Andrzej Goulding’s videos of abstract expressionist paintings scumble over it, after a spectral whoosh of subway cars. Alexandra Fayre Braithwaite’s sound adds to the envelope of mystery.
‘I saw a dead man on the subway once.’ That opening line by wheelchair-bound artist Alex took as long for Don DeLillo to find a play for, as director Jack McNamara did to find a theatre: and UK premiere of his Loves-Lies-Bleeding. So it’s almost inevitable McNamara happens on the Print Room, that mesmerising place of hard-won causes.
With three plays to his credit, DeLillo’s dramatic reputation is besmirched by fame as a novelist. Unforgivable. McNamara’s engaging on this, but what makes Loves-Lies-Bleeding so awkwardly compelling is the language and presence not too far removed from Sam Shepherd. Set round an end-of-life dilemma – where there’s little overt conflict – its four protagonists are mainly duetting: as if Turgenev wrote A Month in the Desert.
There are though solo memorial addresses studded throughout in this ninety-minute work. What makes this such a fascinating work is how DeLillo starts with the living remembering their first dead; and ends with the now posthumous asserting life. Though chronological it zig-zags so Joe McGann’s Alex recalls time with his worldly sexy second wife, Josie Lawrence’s Toinette; and with his fourth, Clara Indrani’s passionately angelic Lia. It’s she who takes up the burden of Alex’s carer, and resents it least.
Significantly Alex never talks to his son from his first marriage, Sean. Described by Toinette to Lia as ‘an approximate version of what he thinks he should be’, Sean’s living in a seething mirror, not living up to the father who he says failed to be a great artist. Jack Wilkinson’s resentment at a distant Alex drives the plot: assisted dying.
Whilst Sean wishes Alex dead – he’s now seemingly in a persistent vegetative state – Toinette is at first resistant, Lia far more so. Whilst hedonistic Toinette is equivocally won round, partly on the basis that Alex can’t enjoy his life, and perhaps he’s using up a bit more of hers, Lia’s more visionary values kick in. It’s she who expresses the finest moments in the play.
Lily Arnold’s set and mainly dressed-down costumery is memorable. We open – after a spectral whoosh of subway cars – with a transparent liminal rectangle slowly revealing Alex and Lia like a Hopper interior. As light fills it’s revealed as essentially a mirror where Andrzej Goulding’s videos of abstract expressionist paintings scumble over in acid green and deep reds. Occasionally cerulean blues cloud the mirror effect where downstage the protagonists sit around a redwood decked area that shifts forward progressively, where a sofa and light with small tables punctuate the wood.
A vertical decking complements behind; and either side, well, the Coronet does occasionally exude a provisional building. It’s part of what makes it the most magical theatre in London. So banks of sand either side, with tufts of desert plant look – just occasionally – as if the promised 2019 refurb is concurrently underway. Alexandra Fayre Braithwaite’s sound adds to the envelope of mystery.
Countering Alex’s dead subway journeyer is his other line, the succinct ‘M’Illumina d’immense’. Famously the shortest Italian poem (from 1916) by modernist Ungaretti, it allows Alex to bounce versions off Lia. ‘I’m flooded by the light of the immense’ tells you everything of the sun-drenched affirmation they share. Sheerly sensual, existential, it arms Lia in a kind of non-verbal resistance to ending Alex just because he’s not verbal, for whatever reason.
DeLillo’s mastery lies in a deft refusal to allow Toinette or Lia a fixed position, avoiding obvious dialectics, acknowledging how factors like exhaustion and the suffering of the bereaved determine outcomes.
Loves-Lies-Bleeding is one mnemonic flower among many, Lia notes, though Alex and Toinette do too. It’s the medicinal or symbolic effect of flowers. Ultimately a derivative of one of these in morphine – Sean procures it from the internet – forms a more precise table: gradually upping the dose till it kills Alex as ‘he’s in the arms of Morpheus’ a long-buried cliché unexpectedly yanked out. DeLillo subtly registers each: Alex’s ruminative urbanity and storytelling, Toinette’s downright earthiness, Sean’s simmering rationalizations, Lia’s impassioned lucidity.
There’s some rich and rampant delight in Toinette and Alex’s meeting long after their divorce in a flashback, still hungry for each other. DeLillo depicts the sheer physical delight in Alex the creator and perhaps sybarite, whereas Sean sees the opposite. Lia though poses greater questions. Having heard Alex express things with a new-found freedom, she’s unwilling to let that go either. Whatever life persists, faces an extinction from which she draws no comfort.
Lia’s empathy’s shot through with the way she demonstrates love in a simple touch on skin; a capacity to feel that only is something. It’s close to Meursault’s explosive affirmation at the end of L’étranger, just staged at this venue. Anything’s better than extinction – it leads us from Camus back through Beckett to Dostoevsky.
De Lillo asks the dangerous question of what quality of life is. Whether anything, however vestigial, is better than nothingness, not the ‘rest’ Toinette and Sean platitudinously substitute for Lia’s uncompromising blank. McGann is particularly haunting in his twilit expressivity. Lawrence provides a welcome, shifting vitality. Wilkinson manages a florescence of sympathy in his address; Indrani in her ardent paean to living nails whatever’s sublime in this slow-burn wonder. We need the Print Room.