Writer Stephen Clark passed away last year before ever seeing his production of Le Grand Mort, a show he wrote specifically for Julian Clary, fully realised. It’s a show about the delicious intimacy that exists on the cusp of life and death, those dying moments when one is at their most vulnerable. And it’s equally deliciously written, Clark’s skill in both prose and verse evident in Clary’s prologue alone.
Michael (Clary) is desperate to pursue that level of human perfection that exists in the dying moments; Tim (James Nelson-Joyce) is the individual he decides to use to sate his lust via any means necessary. Only Tim turns out more and more to be the predator rather than the prey in this constantly shifting battle of wits. The promise of lust, love and loathing all balances on a knife edge, at the transient tipping point between existence and extinction. Christopher Renshaw’s production never lets the landscape level off for long.
In Justin Nardella’s homegrown set, Michael (Clary) cooks a meal for the man that had the confidence, nay arrogance, to meet him earlier that day in the pub. The prostitute’s pasta is artfully prepared as Clary rattles off Clark’s complex constructed monologue with equally clever layering. Nuanced, observational and never too far from Clary’s unique brand of smutty one-liners, this protracted prologue perfectly premises the war that is about to unfold. The double entendre in particular is where Clary finds his comfort zone, at ease in causing salacious unease among his audience. Clary is less comfortable in more serious snippets of expression but quickly finds his groove even here as Le Grand Mort unfolds.
In mimicking the conceptual tightrope that Le Grand Mort walks, as precarious as a flimsy, final breath before passing on, both Michael (Clary) and Tim’s (Nelson-Joyce) speech equally shifts between serious conversation, snide snipes and jovial flirtations. Renshaw ensures that the dialogue is as seamless as possible, lunge countered with riposte in an effortless, singular motion. In many ways, the constant stream of words is the most intimate thing about the production – everything that Michael (Clary) simultaneously craves and cowers from; everything that Tim takes in his perfectly proportioned stride. The two actors have a chemistry that allows them to play on stage with the text, staying true to Clark’s script but flavouring it with their own personalities.
Renshaw’s Le Grand Mort finds it real stride in the space between lines, the moments in which one character cannot find a retort quick or intelligent enough to counter the jibe of the other. Clary has pause in spades, both intentionally to draw out the agonising ecstasy and unintentionally when he genuinely recoils at the advances of Nelson-Joyce. The latter’s strength lies in his lack of pause, unrelenting and uncompromising in his predatory prowess that quickly shows who is really in charge throughout the show. The sands beneath our feet continue to shift with captivating fluidity.
In intimating something so intimate, Le Grand Mort throws the true connection between passion and rage into the harsh light of day. It’s a wonderfully honest, exposing yet somewhat sadistic production that reveals the close relationship between love & hate, between carnal desire & emotional attachment. Clary and Nelson-Joyce are both student and master, locked in an embrace that neither can back out from even if they wanted to. Clark’s script has the flair & layering to lock us all into the dance with death and we are more than willing to come along for the ride.
Director: Christopher Renshaw
Producer: Danielle Tarento
Writer: Stephen Clark
Design: Justin Nardella; Jamie Platt (lighting); Ed Lewis (sound)
Cast: Julian Clary; James Nelson-Joyce
Image courtesy of Scott Rylander
Le Grand Mort plays Trafalgar Studios until 28 October 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.