Marat/Sade – The inmates are running the asylum. (Theatre Review)
New Theatre 5 October – 5 November 2016
Photos: bob Seary
Jean-Paul Marat was a white Frenchman who believed passionately in society and its responsibility to the lowest of its citizens. His cry was for the poorest of the poor and his demand they only follow the laws made by the wealthy on the proviso they were adequately clothed and fed. The Marquis de Sade, was a white Frenchman, born just four years after Marat, a member of the aristocracy, and a passionate believer in the individual’s right to live as they please, waxing lyrical in his writings about the philosophical advancement of extreme pleasure and the futility (and indecency) of fostering any ideas on humanity as a collective. What Peter Weiss brings to the fore in Marat/Sade is the strange positing of each of these individuals and their passion for extreme violence. Violence wasn’t inflicted on that which they hated, but that which they loved. For Marat, it was reserved for those judged wanting by the collective, and used as a threat over the heads of the living. For de Sade it was inflicted on ones person by self-appointed lovers. Each man took the whip, the gun and the knife to the philosophical symbol they loved the most, to make tangible that which they could not touch.
In 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, Peter Weiss lodges these two men (understandably) in the asylum. With Brechtian panache and Artaud-esque flair, he places the play, within the asylum, and then within another play, that is itself a rehearsal. With both men in the asylum the hysteria of their discourse takes on a deeper meaning than the 1960’s anti-psychiatry movement. Obviously heavily influenced by Foucault’s 1961 text ‘Madness and Civilisation’ (directly influenced by Artaud) Marat/Sade gives off the implication that those difficult to deal with are incarcerated as ‘mad’ to preserve the regulation of employment and wages. While this is undoubtedly Weiss’ point, in the year 2016, to see two white males battling out ideologies forged from ego and a refusal of the female or coloured intellect takes on a new perspective and their position in an insane asylum comically accurate. That these white males presumed their perspective was well thought out and the only two options available seems all the more perverse in the restricted confines of an economically convenient cell.
In the power house scene when Charlotte Corday (Isaro Kayitesi) whips the Marquis de Sade (Mark Langham) at his request the act loses its ability to shock through perversion and rather appears as an acknowledgement of female power – a point perhaps the Marquis makes in his own erotic texts. However, his perversion flourishes because of the submissives gift of power to the Dominant, and he is the submissive to Charlotte Corday. Her power exists as a favour in his gift, not as a right she claims. For Charlotte Corday to be a powerhouse political figure, not a sweet girl protecting her loved ones, the Marquis loses his power over her as Marat does at the plays end. This is neither the Marquis intent nor Peter Weiss’ but in the face of the deterioration of machismo, the scene becomes even more complex and possibly more erotic – though no doubt, not for the Marquis.
Cleverly Tom Bannerman uses the telescopic nature of the text (play within a play within a play) to cage the production in the centre of the New Theatre (this production is worth seeing for the magnificently crafted set alone) that the audience peer down into, as director Barry French keeps low lights on the audience, so we peer through the bars at each other. This gentle but disturbing confrontation includes the audience opposite in the events on stage and further broadens the idea that the asylum is an idea, rather than a place as Foucault would have us believe. Barry French’s desire to have us see the inmates as refugees speaks strongly to the spirit of Foucault’s text but broadens the plays scope by labelling the inconvenient spirited outsider as that excluded by patriarchal history rather than the reductive discourse previously exclusive to the white male. Under Barry French’s direction, Peter Weiss’ inconvenient genius is not a white male, but a Muslim woman in a headscarf.
This production of Marat/Sade is well executed with fine performances, an eye-catching exciting set and complex detailed behind the scenes work. Of special note is Nate Edmondson’s sound and the truly brilliant score. The songs are thrilling, and immediately evoke a need for more. This production has enlisted a long detailed list of contributors and it shows from the broad multifaceted talents of the cast through to the psych consultant enlisted to assist the cast with their tough subject matter, this is a well thought out, beautifully executed production that rewards the close listener with nuances far beyond the original playwright’s intention. It is a stand out in a stellar year.