Peter Weiss' The Persecution and Assassination of Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade¹ (commonly abbreviated to Marat/Sade, I can't imagine why) was staged by the year below me at university and I remember finding it really dull. But directing it for the RSC's 50th anniversary is one of my favourite playwrights, Anthony Neilson, and I was interested to see what he'd do with a play he didn't write, and this one in particular. The full title tells the story of Weiss' play, in which de Sade (Jasper Britton) frequently enters his own play-within-a-play to debate politics with the idealistic Marat (Arsher Ali.) The theme is that once you start a revolution it's out of your control, and accordingly the inmates don't exactly stick to the script.
The play was a sensation for the RSC in 1964 and in trying to recapture the scandal Neilson throws everything he's got at it - I got two separate warnings, one emailed and one posted that the production has content that may offend. So there's plenty of violent, sexual, scatological and religious imagery, though how much actual offence is caused is questionable - there's something glorious about seeing a matinee audience largely consisting of older couples be completely unfazed by a dwarf fellating a bishop. (Although the lady sitting next to me tutted disapprovingly on returning from the interval to find a toilet on stage.) Neilson and designer Garance Marneur have set the action in the present day, so characters wear Niqabs and Khyam Allami's music references the Middle East; Marat's quill becomes a laptop; and there's an ingeniously chilling use of mobile phones that makes you genuinely flinch when one goes off. Doubtless the show's excesses are attention-seeking but they do work in bringing mad life to a play that consists largely of political discourses. The protagonists' ideologies do get a bit lost among the sound and fury but at least this time around I was never bored.
Despite the title this is an ensemble show, with Imogen Doel's narcoleptic Charlotte Corday, Lanre Malaolu's constantly wanking Duperret and Lisa Hammond's S&M mistress of a Herald, getting about in a smoke-spewing wheelchair, all standing out. So do Theo Ogundipe, whose mental patient character is playing a woman in the play-within-a-play, and looks bemused when the squeaky West Indian voice he gives her elicits laughs; and Christopher Ettridge, whose sinister Coulmier oversees (and impotently objects to) everything. Meanwhile Oliver Rix has to join the list of actors who are way too unfairly handsome to be so talented, his childlike William is the standout among the patients. He gives a beautifully detailed performance as his character's obsession with Nathaniel Martello-White's Jaques Roux variously takes the form of doe-eyed adoration and violent outbursts. The pair have a whole silent subplot developing in the background throughout the show. Martello-White also gives one of the least caricatured "mad" performances on show. The programme makes reference to the fact that as well as the insane, political dissidents were also held at Charenton, not that it's particularly apparent on stage: Turns out, if you ask a group of actors to play mental patients, there's no mad rush for who can play the "normal" one. A couple of the performances bordered on the uncomfortable for me, but these two were admirably restrained.
Of course, the fact that Rix spends most of the play in a see-through, skintight T-shirt, and Martello-White wanders around in a jockstrap, may or may not have influenced my opinions on certain matters. Shut up, I'm only human.
I'm certainly glad I made the trip up to see this although I don't know how confidently I'd recommend it - both play and production are undoubtedly oddities. From what I've seen of the official reviews they've not been keen, and though a flawed show I think they've been a bit harsh. Then again, newspaper reviewers probably don't give automatic extra stars on the basis of "look, Oliver Rix has got his nipples out!" Weirdos.
The Persecution and Assassination of Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss in a version by Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell is booking until the 5th of November at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.
¹how disappointed am I that livejournal wouldn't let me put the full title in the topic name? This disappointed *big fish gesture*