If you’ve ever looked around and thought that the inmates must be running the asylum, you’ll feel pleasantly affirmed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Peter Weiss’s 1963 work has the mind-boggling title “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade,” which takes almost as long to read as it does to perform. Understandably, it’s usually shortened to “Marat/Sade.”
The show revolves around a play within a play. In 1808, the Marquis de Sade stages a dramatic performance within the insane asylum in which he is incarcerated. The director of the asylum, proud of his liberal attitudes, believes in art as a rehabilitating force for the inmates.
De Sade’s play deals with the 1793 assassination of Jean- Paul Marat, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, by a young woman named Charlotte Corday.
It’s all very Brechtian. Characters step out of role to address each other. There are songs, both caustic and political. The inmates include a sex maniac and a narcoleptic who occasionally forget their lines.
That’s a euphemistic way of describing it. There’s no such holding back on stage. It’s a mad, whirling piece, brutal and sometimes funny. It’s also intellectually dazzling. At its heart is an argument between Marat and de Sade about the state of humanity. Marat believes mankind can be improved by force, and can be made to live more collectively.
De Sade believes in pure individualism. For him, the only way to survive the pain of existence is to turn inward, and to search for annihilation through physical pleasure and pain.
As in all great drama, the argument is finally unresolved. It must rank as one of the least didactic of political pieces. It’s the journey through the ideas which provides the excitement.
In one memorable scene, de Sade outlines his theory while being voluntarily bound and tortured in a woman’s loose chemise.
When the RSC first staged “Marat/Sade” in 1964, some theater-goers considered scenes like this disgusting in the extreme. Nowadays, we’re so used to depictions of torture-porn on our stages, that there are unlikely to be many who feel the need to reach for the sick-bag. We’ll probably even see them on “The Teletubbies” soon.
That 1964 production was a seminal staging for the company, then just three years old. A transfer to Broadway garnered terrific reviews. There was a well-received film in 1967 with Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday.
As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the RSC is revisiting it in a new production by Anthony Neilson. He updates the action to a contemporary setting, with strong references to the Arab Spring.
Marat is played by Arsher Ali, an actor of Arab heritage. Charlotte Corday (Imogen Doel) is dressed as a Palestinian freedom-fighter. The means of repression is the taser gun. The inmates are all controlled by individual mobile phones, which beep every time they get over-excited.
Opening on the day in which Muammar Qaddafi was killed, the play’s examination of assassination as a political tool couldn’t feel more relevant. What price life? What price power? Revenge, or justice? Is mass communication a means of freedom, or control?
Jasper Britton (de Sade) controls the stage whenever he’s on it, and orates with an obvious love of rhetoric. When dragged up in blond wig and pink frock, he simpers and dimples amusingly too. The Herald, a narrator character, is performed with sarcastic glee and bitter humor by Lisa Hammond.
Ali, on the other hand, doesn’t find the burning center of Marat’s dictatorial self-belief, and this unbalances the central Marat-Sade argument somewhat.
For a show which requires eruptions of manic behavior, it’s also a curiously detached, even sedate, production. The cast gibber and run and shout and smear themselves with great vigor. For all that, the sense of exquisite cruelty, the fear which chills your marrow to its soul, is missing.
Intellectual engagement, however, there is aplenty. It’s also the kind of large-scale ensemble piece which the RSC does to perfection. There’s so much trust between the actors, you can almost feel it.
A great celebration for the company. Not 50 years old. Fifty years young. Rating: ***.
“Marat/Sade” is at the RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon- Avon. Information: http://www.rsc.org.uk
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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