Love-Lies-Bleeding review – Don DeLillo play is a matter of life and death

Print Room at the Coronet, London
The novelist’s 2005 drama opens up arguments about assisted death and the point at which life ceases to have meaning

Many of the great American novelists – Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow – have at some point written plays. Don DeLillo is more committed than most and this piece, written in 2005, reveals a genuine sense of theatre. Elegantly staged by Jack McNamara, who has constantly championed DeLillo’s dramas, its main problem is that its protagonist seems more compelling as he approaches death than in what we see of his earlier life.

Immobilised by a stroke, Alex is an artist who exists in a permanent vegetative state lovingly tended by his young fourth wife, Lia. But wife number two, Toinette, turns up announcing “we’re here to help him die”, and she is aided by Alex’s son, Sean, who has come prepared with a programme of morphine therapy. This opens up a fascinating argument about assisted death and the point at which life ceases to have meaning. But the moral debate is short-circuited by an extended flashback in which Alex is visited by Toinette in his isolated home: it is hard to see what this proves other than that Alex was always an obsessive in his desire to create art out of the rocky landscape.

Joe McGann and Josie Lawrence as ex-wife Toinette in Love-Lies-Bleeding.
Flashback … Joe McGann and Josie Lawrence as ex-wife Toinette. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The play is at its best in showing how people impose their own desires on the irrecoverably ill: Lia says of Alex “he wants to die in nature’s time” while Toinette and Sean presume that he wants to be relieved of pain. Who, DeLillo asks, are we to know what goes on in the mind of the silently suffering? Lily Arnold’s set, dominated by a transparent screen, and Azusa Ono’s lighting reinforce the sense that the play is about the precarious border between life and death and the performances are all good.

Josie Lawrence sharply reflects Toinette’s ambivalence towards an ex who, she claims, “consumed people”; while Clara Indrani as Lia conveys the devotion of the caring young. Jack Wilkinson hints at the vengeance of the son towards a cold-hearted father; and Joe McGann as the dying Alex suggests that DeLillo aspires to Beckett’s role as the poet of terminal stages.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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