Tag Archives: RSC

Marat/Sade (1967)

10 Nov

The recent RSC production of the Peter Weiss play ‘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’ – to give it its full, unwieldy title – has caused considerable controversy and reignited the endless debate about the limits of art. Antony Neilson’s revival of the infamous ‘play within a play’ met with an average of thirty walkouts per night, with one disgruntled patron describing it as ‘utter filth and depravity’; critics haven’t been much kinder.

Peter Brook’s adaptation of the original 1963 production is amongst the better known celluloid evocations of Sade’s work: the others being ‘Quills’ (2000), a bawdy romp with literary pretensions that portrays Sade as a lovable libertine in the order of a louche seventies rock star; and the altogether nastier ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975), which in its total lack of compassion can be said to embody Sade’s worldview with the greatest insight.

The director of the Charenton asylum, Coulmier (Clifford Rose), decides to stage a play written by its most famous occupant, the Marquis De Sade (Patrick Magee), with the other patients playing the roles for the enjoyment of Coulmier’s bourgeois friends and family. The play tells the story of Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson), a polemicist during the French Revolution who met his end at the hands of Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson). Marat was a contemporary of Sade’s, a firebrand with whom he had impassioned debates about the validity of his revolutionary actions.

As the play progresses, Coulmier, accompanied by his wife and daughter (Brenda Kempner and Ruth Baker), intervenes in proceedings when contentious lines that were intended to be excised from the script are uttered by its wayward players. The play details Sade and Marat’s conflicting opinions on the tumultuous events gripping the country: Sade averring that Man is by nature a destroyer, overwhelmed in the face of nature’s indifference, while Marat counters that the collective will can sooth our inner conflict, seeing hope in fraternity, equality and liberty.

No doubt keen to distinguish itself from its theatrical progenitor, ‘Marat/Sade’ is a thoroughly cinematic experience, standing in stark contrast to so many other stage-to-screen transfers. Picking up where he left off with his previous film adaptation, ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1963), Brook packs the screen with detail; playing with focus and composition to great effect, utilizing the far reaches of the frame, characters occupying the fore, mid and background and addressing the camera. It all combines to create a sense of dynamism and spontaneity within a sparse single location, though clearly every move was planned to the smallest detail and executed with the utmost precision.

The production design and art direction are expertly handled by Sally Jacobs and Ted Marshall, fashioning a drab palette of black, grey and off-white, consciously contrasted by the Culmiers’ pristine robes and Charlotte’s virginal attire; while David Watkin’s cinematography uses the queasy sunlight streaming in through the windows to create some startling interplay of light and shade. The sound design is equally effective, bringing unsettling noises to the fore and isolating voices from the often cacophonous songs, backed by a heady blend of stentorian band music, religious dirges and atonal blasts of noise.

Every member of the ensemble cast manages to distinguish themselves: Michael Williams as the sardonic Herald, John Steiner as the foppish Monsieur Dupere, the Greek chorus of the disenfranchised comprising of Freddie Jones, Hugh Sullivan, Jonathan Burn and Jeanette Landis, and Robert Lloyd as the deranged preacher turned rabble-rouser Jacques Roux. Magee and Richardson do battle, reflecting the duality of human impulse, with Rose as the glib political operator moderating their debate. Magee – best known for his role in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) – has a careworn physiognomy that perfectly elucidates the toll of Sade’s journey into the abyss of human cruelty; while Richardson – forever the Machiavellian Francis Urqhart in the public imagination – plays the tortured idealist with zeal.

In her first major role, Jackson is spellbinding as the young victim of ‘sleeping sickness and melancholia’ who is reluctantly thrust into the role of assassin; conveying Charlotte’s fragility and confusion, trapped in a constant state of dazed semi-consciousness, her breathing tremulous, her diction faltering, her body language cowed; it is the work of an artist at the height of their capabilities.

‘Marat/Sade’ unfolds like a grand metaphor: the inmates are forced into their roles for the pleasure of the elite audience, the bars protecting their shadowy forms from the rabble; the suffering of the many reduced to a theatrical trifle for the few. ‘Marat/Sade’ is imbued with the spirit of rebellion that exploded in 1789, bubbled to the surface once more in 1968 and is beginning to make itself heard again today, lambasting endless war for the personal gain of an already wealthy minority, ‘happy mutual robbery’ and the spoils being ‘grabbed by businessmen, financiers and manipulators’. Conversely, for all his turpitude, Sade is an icon of the Freidman Monetarists, Libertarians and sundry other self-regulators in his assertion that ‘I believe only in myself’, whether they care to acknowledge his legacy or not.

Mainstream theatre has been hijacked by hackneyed recreations of reliable properties and saccharine musical spectacles; its vitality drained by its quest for ever-greater profit; seeking not to challenge and edify, but comfort and pacify. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the current version of ‘Marat/Sade’ met with such opprobrium from a generation of theatregoers inured to such middlebrow fare.

Marat/Sade '11 at the RSC.