Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: 'Le Grand Mort' at Trafalgar Studios 2, 25th September 2017

Le Grand Mort reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Sex and death go together as well eggs and bacon. Female praying mantises famously consume the heads of their paramours, the male anglerfish is entirely absorbed into the female after sex, and orb weaver spiders of the Argiope genus die after inserting their sperm-transfer organs into the female. It was perhaps while observing nature in all its fucked up glory that some French dude decided that 'la petite mort' was a great name for orgasm. 

Working on similar lines is Stephen Clark's Le Grand Mort, a twisted little play studded with knives, bodily fluids, wine, incest, murderous intent and where the air is infused with the smell of frying onions. Except for a couple of short flashbacks, the play takes place entirely within the (fully functioning) kitchen of middle-aged architect Michael (Julian Clary). It's all brushed metal and vaguely OCD cleanliness, each pot, pan and surface appearing surgically sterilised. On the wall is a life-size statue of Da Vinci's Vitruvian man, a bit of interior decor that's so homoerotic it borders on parody.

Michael is expecting company. In a bar that evening he was propositioned by the confident, wordy and intriguing Tim (James Nelson-Joyce). He's a scouser with a lot to say, approaching conversation like a swordsman, forever ducking, feinting and parrying whatever's said back at him. He's also built like a brick shithouse and (somehow inevitably) ends up strutting about buck naked.

The first act is given over entirely to Michael as he prepares dinner (pasta puttanesca - the 'whore's pasta') and delivers a rangy, poetic monologue on sex, death and the cocktail the two add up to - necrophilia. We hear how the beautiful wives of Pharaohs would be left to rot for a couple of days in order to prevent those trusted to mummify her from getting off, which quickly dovetails into a mega-gross urban legend that the mortician entrusted with Marilyn Monroe's body was charging Hollywood's finest perverts a handsome sum to defile her Nembutal swollen corpse.

The monologue is as well written as it is bizarre. The part was written specifically for Clary and he takes obvious relish in delivering the strange subject material, accompanied by the rhythmic chop-chop of knife on board as he precisely bisects some suspiciously glans-like peeled tomatoes. Clary's Michael is measured and compelling, so much so that it's a bit of a shock to the system when the far more outre Tim shows up and ushers in chaos.

From here the play expands outward to encompass incest and child abuse, tumbling into a confused and slightly dream-like repeated reversal of fortunes. Each man wields a knife against the other, the weapon repeatedly swapping hands and the threats feeling more like extremely kinky foreplay than any actual danger of death. 

So what do all these ingredients add up to? Clark keeps things purposefully vague, which on one hand gives the play its disorientating wine n' semen haze, but on the other, you sense that these characters are mere vehicles for the playwright's discourse on the relationship between sex and death. Clark identifies the thread that binds them as the desire for ultimate, true intimacy - the penetration of the body by another - be it by cock, blade or hand (a highlight is Michael relating the story of Howard Carter desecrating the body of Tutankhamun). I am generally loath to tie down the content of a play to what I know of the writer's personal circumstances, but it is difficult not to conclude that the morbid subject matter springs from the illness Clark suffered from while writing it, which resulted in his untimely death last October.

Le Grand Mort is not a perfect play. Clary and Nelson-Joyce give it some welly, but both characters are built on wobbly foundations. This leaves the narrative stunted - those who watch theatre with the desire to emotionally engage with the characters will most likely be left in the cold. That said, it's undoubtedly interesting, entertaining and multi-faceted, with the binding together of sex and death lent weight by the circumstances surrounding its writing.

Le Grand Mort is at Trafalgar Studios 2 until October 28. Tickets here.

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