American novelist and playwright Don DeLillo’s 2005 play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, concerns itself with death as an end game and the so-called significant others who surround its protagonist, Alex Macklin (Joe McGann), a 70-year-old landscape artist who, after suffering a stroke, is in the final stages of his life.
But before we encounter Alex, we are already confronted with a set design that evokes a somber mood and seems to echo the line: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It is designer Lily Arnold’s remarkable interpretation of a harsh Arizona desert, swept with ridges of sand, timeless and hostile to human life, and as unyielding as a parched American landscape.
In the play’s opening scene Alex is in a wheelchair and speaks behind a large plate of smoke-coloured reflective glass. I saw a dead man on a subway once, he says, recalling what Freud would refer to as a childhood screen memory. Alex is 11-years-old when he notices a dead man slumped in the carriage car of a New York train. The man’s mouth is agape, his lifeless, decrepit body bounces to the rhythm of the subway car. Alex wonders if the man died hours ago. Is life so meaningless that no-one bothers to notice? Alex’s father sits beside him, oblivious to the dead man and his son, he is mad for horse racing and sticks his head in the racing forms.
The next time we meet Alex he has suffered a massive second stroke and facially, and physically, now matches his own description of the dead man on the train. He cannot speak, his mouth hangs open and his limp body is in a death-like vegetative state. He exists only in a sleep-wake cycle and is unaware of the people who surround him: his son Sean (Jack Wilkinson), along with two of his four wives who have gathered to discuss his condition and his fate.
Sean pleads for a mercy killing, arguing that his father is alive in the most narrow definition of what constitutes a human life, while his current and fourth wife, Lia (Clara Indrani), is vehemently opposed to the suggestion. His ex-wife Toinette (Josie Lawrence), sides with Sean and engages with the idea of ending Alex’s life with a series of morphine injections.
Speaking in poetic prose each character contemplates Alex’s life and the position he took up as father, husband and lover. All give a wordy account of the man and, at times, mete out a harsh moral judgment. But their philosophical musings seem to have little to do with their characters’ intentions but everything to do with a four-sided debate that we imagine DeLillo himself has struggled with when contemplating the end of his own life, the ways in which he might be remembered, and who shall have the moral right to judge him. It is a credit to director Jack McNamara that we remain with the characters even when we are aware that the author is all too present.
However, if you love DeLillo’s novels and previous plays then you will stick with Love-Lies-Bleeding even when it ceases to be a play, and if you aren’t acquainted with his work you will still enjoy the play’s carefully honed dialogue that testifies to his strength as a literary giant.
Ultimately the man whose life slips away while riding on a New York subway train is the blood and guts of Love-Lies-Bleeding, along with the indifference of the other subway riders who, even if aware of his death, would have turned to their newspapers and kept on reading.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Set in the sprawling south-western American desert, at the frontier between the man-made and the wilderness, artist Alex Macklin has abandoned his easel to make monumental land art. A second major stroke renders him speechless and motionless. He is kept alive only by feeding and hydration tubes and his desperate fourth wife. Then Alex’s second wife and his only son, who has been online researching ways to end his father’s life, arrive to decide his fate.
With jet black humour, profound insight and moving sensitivity, DeLillo discusses one of our most urgent contemporary debates – what does being alive mean?
Josie Lawrence and Joe McGann lead the cast in the first UK production of American literary icon Don DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding, in a perceptive and surprisingly witty story about a family trying to take death into their own hands.
Dates: Friday 9 November – Saturday 8 December