Marat/Sade is really due to be restaged. With riots in the streets only months ago, and camps springing up in protest of the financial turmoil brought upon us by those in positions of power, the idea of revolution, of a nation rising up against it’s ruling class, has never been more poignant. I was quite excited about this show, not least because it came with a warning email beforehand, a pretty high age limit, and the fact I studied this play at university and knew exactly what was in store.
Saying that, staging a production of Marat/Sade is not without risk. There is something inherently ‘60’s’ about Peter Weiss’s drama, and indeed the Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty style it is presented in. Also, this is the RSC, dahling – and as the Daily Mail has so readily demonstrated with it‘s ridiculously sensationalised summary of this show (which I won’t add a link to for reasons of intelligence and decency) this material still has the capability to shock, and a traditional RSC audience is not used to such outlandish scenes.
So let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, Anthony Neilson’s production is shocking. As someone used to every kind of theatre you can think of, I still balked at the image of a bishop getting sucked off my a buxom midget, or of a cross-dressing Marquis De Sade being tied up and repeatedly tasered, or even of Nicholas Day being stripped naked and gang raped by a giant dildo – but this isn’t shock for shock’s sake, there is a point to be made here.
Set in 1808 in a post revolutionary France, Marat/Sade is almost entirely a “play within a play”. This play is being staged by the inmates and nurses of Charenton Asylum, and overseen by the infamous Marquis De Sade (played charismatically by Jasper Britton). His play attempts to tell the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Throughout, De Sade conducts many philosophical dialogues with Marat about the nature of revolution, and observes the proceedings with detached amusement as the disturbed individuals around him enact scenes of revolution and rebellion.
The most obvious change from the original piece is that Neilson has updated the action. It is still set in the 1800’s, but the physical look of the show has changed. While we are witnessing the fallout of the French revolution, there is a distinct Middle Eastern theme to Charlotte Corday’s costume as she kills Marat with a handgun, and patients are controlled via smart phones.
Speaking of the physical look of the piece, I have to mention Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting. I’m not normally one to dwell on scenography, preferring instead to take in the piece as a whole, but Yavroyan’s lighting was a triumph. It set the scene perfectly and used some mind-boggling effects at times – indeed, the moment when the whole theatre seemed to sway and move was so impressive I completely forgot about the spectacle on stage, staring dumbstruck at the balcony opposite me as it seemed to move and shift.
The staging too, is beautiful in it’s simplicity – a bare stage with bare iron ladders curving over the audience, creating a grid and an empty space to create any image the ever-changing story dictates. The whole thing is incredibly well designed and executed, allowing the patients of the asylum to loom over the audience on the ladders, hang off precariously at times, and use the runways to get up close and personal to those seated in the stalls.
The piece is performed admirably by the large cast, with all committing to the play’s strong demands from its actors. I was uncomfortable at first with the idea of an able-bodied cast doing out-dated impressions of patients with learning difficulties, but this aspect of the production is approached tastefully, and no one in the cast has slipped into caricature or cliché, instead portraying these patients subtly when necessary, but also allowing them the freedom to lash out when the script dictates it.
Jasper Britton, as I previously mentioned, stands out as De Sade who is the orchestrator of this event, but there are great performances from all, most notably Imogen Joel as a shivering and narcoleptic Charlotte Corday, and Lisa Hammond who gives a spectacular take on the Herald – revelling in every aspect of the play being performed, especially the more disturbing and sadistic acts.
And so we come to the main flaw in Neilson’s production, and it is a flaw that marred the entire production for me. It all looks very good, and it’s certainly shocking, but in focussing so doggedly on the shock-and-awe tactics employed here, Neilson seems to bypass the main points of the play. Marat’s freedom from oppression is something that could really speak to a modern audience, but it is a message that is lost in the hubbub around it. In the same way, the individualism that Sade champions is something a modern audience can identify with, but that message is only ever drilled home when something utterly appalling is happening on stage at the same time, so is lost in the ether.
This is an insightful play, but the sensationalist staging here means that anything I might have taken away from it was lost. Instead I left as many did, a bit shell-shocked, impressed at the grandeur and ambition of the piece, but totally confused about why it all happened.