It gives me great pleasure to present a guest review from my college colleague Anna Brickman:
Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, directed by Anthony Neilson for the RSC
Warning: Contains spoilers.
Marat/Sade is one of those plays that I’ve been aware of forever but never seen nor read. The RSC, who gave us the original English production in 1964, directed by Peter Brook, is presenting a new production of it as part of their 50th Birthday programme. It’s directed by Anthony Neilson, whose occasional ventures in directing work not written by himself have given him something of a reputation for moulding other writer’s scripts to his own bidding, however, he’s also a director very capable of working with large casts and pushing audiences (and possibly actors) into unsettling areas of life. I look forward to the day the RSC invite him to direct some Shakespeare!
The conceit of the play is that in 1808 the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned at Charenton Asylum, asylums then being home not just to people with mental illness but to people with dissident or dangerous ideas. He was allowed to put on plays from time to time, and what we’re watching is his play about the murder of Jean-Paul Marat, the revolutionary, in 1793. You know, the one stabbed in the bath in the painting by Jacques Louis David. This immediately sets up the politics of Marat, old-school socialist, against de Sade, who believed in the individual; and the times, the French Revolution having turned sour with Napoleon becoming a dictator. Except it premiered in Berlin in 1964, where the recently built wall kept Communism and Capitalism apart, where the Holocaust was still a raw memory, and the Paris riots, anti Vietnam War demonstrations, and much that we now use to define “the 60s” was yet to come. Except it’s 2011, and this isn’t a museum piece. Driving to the theatre for the first preview the news was full of Liam Fox’s resignation and the murkier politics behind that. When I saw it last night it was a quiet news day. Tonight, when the Press get to see it, of course the news is filled with Gaddafi.
Neilson has deliberately referenced the Arab Spring. In an ethnically diverse cast, Marat, played by Arsher Ali, could easily pass as Egyptian or Tunisian. The music has a strong Arab influence with some beautiful oud playing. But it sits lightly. Neilson isn’t forcing a new identity onto an old play, but rather suggesting resonances whilst leaving us space to find our own if we wish.
So that’s the politics, but what about the entertainment? Yes, it was very entertaining. We had been warned in advance about nudity, gunfire, etc, and the audience seemed to have a heightened expectation of the possibility of being affronted, or insulted, or humiliated. Those of us familiar with the thrust stage, either of the new RST or its predecessor The Courtyard, or even The Swan, are used to actors coming through the audience for exits and entrances, and feel no nervous tension when this happens. We’re also used to actors addressing individuals in the audience. The newer people in the audience, and there was a refreshingly high proportion of young people, seemed less secure about the missing fourth wall. There is one incident where one of the actors goes into the audience and demands money from a particular individual, then throws it back in derision because the amount proffered is so insultingly low, but apart from having popcorn thrown at us, and the usual front row dangers of accidental spillage (my neighbour got water and latex pig guts), that was it. We were safe. At first I was concerned that I was expected to laugh at people with serious mental health problems, but the actors weren’t just “playing mad”. Each character had a definite personality and if I’d spoken to the actors I’ll bet they knew exactly what condition or syndrome their character had. Neilson’s own writing has addressed mental illness, so he wasn’t going to be crass about its portrayal. Obviously with de Sade in charge some of the scenes were difficult to watch. De Sade (Jasper Britton) himself was tasered for pleasure, and another character was repeatedly violated with a dildo, but other scenes which may have shocked in the 60s were funny or puerile. There would have been little point, though, in Neilson trying to outshock Brook’s production, because that isn’t really the point.
The set, by Garance Marneur, was beautiful and simple. Following the line of the Circle was a gallery at the back, with the musicians on one side and “audience” on the other, which included Coulmier (Christopher Ettridge), Director of Charenton, who from time to time brought proceedings back to order. I would have put some genuine members of the audience up there. Below this gallery were 5 or 6 full height turnstyles, giving options for entrances. On both sides of the stage were two crescent shaped ladders or climbing frames, arcing up to the lighting bar in front of the circle, upon which the actors sometimes climbed. In the centre was a large grey box, the bath, which at times rose on a platform, but could also be pushed off stage. Simple and elegant. Standard clothing for the inmates was white, possibly plastic, tracksuit like outfits with dazzling white trainers, and most importantly, a smartphone worn in a sleeve around the ankle (similar to the ones joggers wear on their arms to hold iPods).
Coulmier used the phones as a means of control. There were times when everyone’s phone rang, which brought things to a halt and restored some semblance of order, and there were times when only one phone rang, which resulted in that character having to kneel for a while wearing a black hood. At other times the characters used the cameras in their phones. Interestingly, no one used their phone to have a conversation.
Marat/Sade is a sprawling mess of a play. Part Brechtian with its metatheatrical alienation and lengthy political arguments, part provocative Theatre of Cruelty, part comedy, and very thin on plot. I spoke to someone who saw the original, who told me it had a very clear message and advised me to watch the DVD (it’s on the list). He’d found Neilson’s production too busy (he’s a big Neilson fan), but this was after the first preview and thankfully it’s sharpened up a lot since then. With nothing to compare it to, I thought it felt very modern, very European, still a little puzzling, but very commendable. It’s on in Stratford until November 5th, along with a selection of talks about Theatre of Cruelty, Theatre of Protest, rehearsed readings, etc. If you get the chance, go and see it.