Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Theatre review: Le Grand Mort

Sex and death have always been uncomfortably linked in people’s minds, and that’s an idea that Stephen Clark’s Le Grand Mort opens with; 85 minutes later I’m not sure it’s made any further point. Clark wrote it as a rare dramatic vehicle for Julian Clary, who plays Michael, cooking pasta and monologuing – in verse – about famous deaths from history. He’s particularly interested in ones with a grotesque story behind the death (despite him debunking the story of Catherine the Great being crushed to death by the horse she was fucking, it gets repeated a number of times,) or those that have either fact or urban legend attached to them about the corpse being subject to some kind of necrophiliac attention. Eventually we’ll find out the source of his obsession is mother issues that go from the Oedipal to the downright Sir Jimmy, but for now he’s focusing on his guest for the evening.

Tim (James Nelson-Joyce) is a much younger man who came up to him in a pub at lunchtime, aggressively flirting with him and inviting himself to dinner.

He’s recognised a kindred spirit in Michael, as he’s haunted by the death of his first boyfriend, but where Michael’s morbid fixation has left him thinking he wants to kill someone, Tim has a death wish. Or maybe it’s the other way round, because as with any story that plays a cat-and-mouse game, it tries to wrong-foot the audience about which of the characters is really in danger here, and in exactly what way. The intention seems to be a more serious Deathtrap by way of Pinter, but that’s not an easy balance to strike, and if Le Grand Mort does have something to say beyond “sex and death can get wound up in each other in disturbing ways” it keeps it enigmatic to the point of obscurity.

If the point was to put Clary out of his comfort zone this clearly does. It’s not that he’s bad exactly, he just doesn’t seem particularly confident in the role, always appearing happiest when the script gives him something resembling his own brand of innuendo – not that it’s ever actually played for laughs, more for shocks. So maybe that’s the point, to see how much near-the-knuckle talk of violence, necrophilia and incest the audience can put up with (for one audience member tonight that breaking point was Michael describing how his mother got carried away bathing him as a child – she stormed out, which in this theatre involves stomping across the stage.) If anything this makes the play feel dated and a bit juvenile, like one of the more insubstantial In-Yer-Face era plays.

Or maybe the point was to put on display a frankly top-notch set of genitals, in which case fair play, Nelson-Joyce concluding the evening with aFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!as he crucifies himself naked on the statue of Vitruvian Man that creepily dominates Michael’s interior décor. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that director Christopher Renshaw could have built a more surreal tone to carry the play’s oddity, but I don’t really think it’s the production at fault here. The playwright sadly died last year and if he knew it was coming that may explain why his final work is so single-minded, but unfortunately if he came to any insights he hasn’t communicated them here.

Le Grand Mort by Stephen Clark is booking until the 28th of October at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander.

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