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 is a mouthful of a play title and the onstage experience is similarly overwhelming. New Theatre’s production of what they – and we – will call Marat/ Sade is an explosive, political work about class struggle.
It’s 1808, and the inmates of Charenton Asylum are about to perform a re-enactment of the French Revolution. The action weaves- somewhat unclearly at times- between the ‘performance-within-performance’ and a discussion of the meta-play’s political themes. Nihilist philosopher and revolutionary Marquis de Sade directs the show, extolling his cynical opinions.
Weiss’ play is an unflinching look at human suffering and the cruelty of man; how the greed and apathy of the rich cause the struggle of the poor. Such ideas are, unfortunately, as pertinent today as they were at Marat/Sade’s 1964 premiere.
Director Barry French has re-contextualised the Charenton asylum into a modern detention centre. The inmates’ suffering and desperation are a stark reminder of our government’s inhumane policies, and there’s now a compellingly dark irony to the Herald’s affirmation “The events in this play are of another time. We are more civilised now.”
Tom Bannermans’ formidable set contributes that discomfort; a metal cage lines the thrust stage, effectively forcing the audience to peer in to this world of barbarism and inhumanity from a more comfortable outside.
Like the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cast fumbles through the script, missing cues and forgetting lines. The bourgeois hospital director, Coulmier (Peter Talmac) is a patriotic supporter of the current Napoleonic government. He often stops the performance, attempting to censure more radical moments in the script. Spiros Hristias’ lighting marks these jarring shifts in a manner consistent with Brecht’s ‘Alienation effect’. This effect sought to highlight the constructed and fictional nature of theatre to audiences by encouraging them to analyse the play’s ideas rather than empathise with the characters. The anti-realism of the rousing musical intervals further Brechtian influence, almost like a distorted version of Les Miserables.
The surreal work is inspired by the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ movement, which sees Art, not as a form of entertainment, but a means for artists to assault the audience’s senses, allowing unrealised emotions to be brought from the subconscious. French’s direction certainly achieves this, the actors stare, scream and unsettle the audience. Every performer in this large cast show absolute commitment to their roles. Some of the most dynamic and compelling performances include Mark Langham as cynical De Sade, Annette Van Roden as the gender-switched Marat and Jim McCrudden as the loquacious Herald.
If the essence of theatre is to provoke conversation about challenging topics, New Theatre’s Marat/Sade is up for the challenge. The compelling and engrossing narrative transports you to a world both familiar and surreal. This city could do with seeing more works like it.