A family on the verge of a momentous decision forms the focus of Don DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding at the Print Room at the Coronet in a stark production by director Jack McNamara, who is the only person to have staged the works of this multi award winning author in the UK.

A curious, rather unfulfilling piece.

Alex (Joe McGann) abandoned city life to live in the desolate southwestern USA where he could could create land art on a scale befitting the location. He suffered a stroke and then a second that deprives him of speech and most movement. He is kept alive by tubes that supply his food and liquids and the love of his much younger fourth wife Alex (Clara Indrani). They are visited by his second wife, Toinette (Josie Lawrence) and Sean (Jack Wilkinson), the son from his first marriage, who have remained friends over the years. At Sean’s suggestion they have come fully prepared and equipped to terminate Alex’s life.

Over ninety minutes the action is divided into multiple sections, not all of which are sequential. One flashback gives a minimal exposé of the relationship between Alex and Toinette when they were married. The scenes are mostly quite short and focused, often with a meditative air about them. Both Toinette and Sean protest that they are trapped by Alex’s continued existence in his vegetative state, yet it is difficult to appreciate why they feel they need to be freed from him. They have their own lives far away and it is Lia who devotedly cares for him single-handedly. She makes the argument that here above all places, surrounded by the desert and flora he loves, Alex should be allowed to sit out his days until his body decides it is time to give up. For her, what Toinette and Sean propose is a violation of Alex’s right to depart this life at his own pace and when the natural order decides, even proclaiming that he has a right to suffer.

Discussions ensue but only once does Sean allude to the possible consequences for for them of his actions and Toinette abruptly silences him. That what they are planning amounts to first degree murder doesn’t seem to matter. The emphasis is on whether the deed they are contemplating is in the best interests of Alex and the surviving family. Frustratingly, the dialogue never reaches an impassioned consideration of the debate surrounding euthanasia. The issue seems to rather more about when life should be brought to an end rather than if, how and by whom. Also rather unsettling is the lack of a consistent genre in which the play can be appreciated. This lack of identification leaves it somewhat lost in the desert where it is located. There are well-received brushes with dark humour, yet insufficient for this to be regarded as a black comedy. Similarly the realism of the interactions are undermined by the surrealistic aspects of the set and the moments when it toys with the absurd.

The cast cope valiantly with a spartan script which is full of omissions that might have given a greater insight into the current situation, filled out their characters and provided more depth to the story. In contrast, the stunning aspects of this production come from the team behind the scenes. The set, by Lily Arnold, who also designed the costumes, is fully exposed on entering the auditorium and evokes an immediate ‘wow’. The desert rocks and sands cascade down the sides of the theatre onto the desert floor on which is superimposed wooden decking. Behind, is one facade of the house, which suggests that the rest might resemble something out of Grand Designs. That box front with its huge mirrored glass holds several ingenious surprises, mostly courtesy of video design by Andrzej Goulding. Time and auras change with shifts in lighting beautifully crafted by Azusa Ono, while soundscapes created by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite herald changes and enhance moods.

It’s a curious, rather unfulfilling piece and begs the question as to whether DeLillo is still better suited to communicating his message through novels.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

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.

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?

Don DeLillo, whose work includes White Noise and Underworld, and whose fans range from Salman Rushdie to Kate Tempest, has received awards and nominations for over 40 prizes including the Pulitzer, PEN/Faulkner and Man Booker International Prize. An incisive and almost prophetic thinker about American society, DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding, written in 2005 long before the public conversation about euthanasia became mainstream, is no exception.

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