Marat/Sade: a ‘no holes barred’ production

The RSC’s revival of Peter Weiss’ gratuitously graphic play is well worth seeing, in all its gory glory.

Patrick Marmion

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Not since The Romans in Britain shook the National Theatre in London in 1982 has British theatre seen such a hoo-ha as the one caused by Marat/Sade, now playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Back in the Eighties, a Roman raping a Briton in 54BC was used as a metaphor for the British occupation of Ireland. Mary Whitehouse, the self-appointed censor, sued director Michael Bogdanov for ‘procuring an act of gross indecency’ and a Private Eye cartoon showed two actors standing in the wings of the National Theatre, one saying to the other ‘I’m buggered if I’m going on there again…’

In Marat/Sade the obscenities are many-more-fold and a good deal more thoroughgoing. The play is a revival of Peter Brook’s 1964 production of 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 Sade. Brook was the great white theatrical hope of the Sixties and his play became one of the RSC’s early sensations both in Britain and the States.

The play is about a group of asylum inmates who, under the instruction of the Marquis De Sade, re-enact the murder of French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. From the outset, the combination of the man who gave us sadism with uncompromising revolutionary idealism and mental illness made this play a powerful Molotov cocktail. But it is made still more powerful under the direction of Anthony Neilson.

Neilson’s previous work as a writer has featured Santa Claus having anal sex with the Christmas fairy and a repressed film censor who finds himself masturbating over a woman defecating on stage to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In Marat/Sade, Neilson once again comes at us no-holes barred. Here he has the Marquis De Sade dressing up as a bishop who dispenses holy communion by farting in the faces of the genuflecting faithful. Afterwards, he is eagerly fellated by a dwarf. The only concession to taste (as it were) is the use of a purple dildo. Later, an inmate plucks a stool from Marat’s toilet bowl and rubs it on his face. But the thing that really outraged many of the commentators was the anal rape of Midsomer Murders actor Nicholas Day. Face down and naked, he is assaulted fore and aft by two men equipped with sex toys.

Now, you may be wondering what is the point of all this? The short answer is there is none: the play is entirely gratuitous. That is De Sade’s counter-position to Marat’s belief in violent revolutionary emancipation. Where Marat believes in the possibility of redressing institutionalised economic injustice through reason and revolution, De Sade insists that such abstractions are illusions and that we are nothing more than bodies revelling in ecstasy and horror. By De Sade’s reckoning, humanity is a bog of rotting corpses from which sprouts the next generation of the doomed.

There is really no polite way of expressing such ideas and it is no surprise that the play appears scandalous to conservative theatregoers who have denounced the whole thing as ‘depraved’ and who have, quite reasonably, asked if this is a proper use of public money. Personally, I think it is because, as the RSC artistic director Michael Boyd has put it, ‘Theatre should bring people together and take the risk of sharing sensitivities in public’.

The disdain shown by the liberal establishment towards the play, though, is more complex. Just as the inmate actors are told off by the enlightened asylum governor (who turns out to have the name of the corporate owners, Charenton Ltd, tattooed on his backside) so many broad-minded critics have baulked at the show. Instead of taking issue with the ideas expressed, however, they distance themselves by quibbling with the aesthetics, saying the play is boring or over-egged. Their complaint is that of taste, not decency.

However, Neilson’s production, like Weiss’s play itself, is rooted in the ideas of Antonin Artaud – the French playwright who advocated a ‘theatre of cruelty’. His idea was not simply that actors should brutalise each other but that drama should reflect the often blindly chaotic reality of human experience. This is why one critic, writing in the Guardian, reflected the views of many people determined not to be shocked by saying that this was ‘Artaud for Artaud’s sake’. It’s hard to imagine how Artaud can be anything else. For him, the gratuitousness of the spectacle was the point.

It is no wonder that some commentators focus on the style rather than the substance of the play because the ideas are indeed troubling. The play presents a glimpse of how revolutionary conditions might erase prevailing ways of being and clear the space for radical change. Liberals, however, do not believe in radical transformation, but in progressive amelioration.

Marat/Sade is a specific indictment of liberal values that are instrumental in disguising the violence that secures political interests, sustains inequality and enslaves individuals to their desire. This is why inmates’ phones are used to echo Abu Ghraib, why Marat inveighs against property and why the cast descends into an orgy of looting.

Neilson’s production follows Karl Marx’s dictum in the Communist Manifesto that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. The result is a chaotic show that sometimes drags. It also employs a form of megaphone agitprop that is often inaudible and belies Marat’s scalpel-sharp writing. Brechtian songs that might have brought levity or light to proceedings are also tunelessly unmemorable. But Khyam Allami’s Arab-influenced music does weave hypnotic twangs, wails and drum beats through the proceedings in an elegant and visceral way.

What’s more, for all the madness around him, real and feigned, Arsher Ali’s Marat is immense. Intriguingly, he looks and sounds like a bearded Yorkshire Islamist – except he advocates secular revolution. And even confined to the bathtub that gives him relief from an agonising skin condition, he still manages to inspire with his analytical thinking and to enflame with his incendiary slogans.

The production will not be remembered for its sobriety, though, but for the Sadean mayhem which can become inspirational for anyone prepared to suspend disbelief.

Jasper Britton is a mixture of sleaze and hauteur as a Marquis de Sade who poses variously as a masochistic transvestite and a Texan oil tycoon. Then there’s Imogen Doel as Marat’s narcoleptic assassin who is doggedly pursued by a lover who has to beat himself off in order to get a word out. No less outrageous or prurient is Lisa Hammond as the production’s tiny, disabled MC. Leather-clad with a plunging cleavage guarded by a silver crucifix, Hammond scoots about imperiously in an electrified wheelchair. She won’t stoop to anyone’s fantasy of a quiescent dwarf who is grateful for her scraps of equal-opportunity offerings.

For all its faults, it is astonishing that a publicly funded institution has managed to get this show on stage. Neither moral nor aesthetic prudery should be allowed to save us from its full, diabolic effect.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Marat/Sade is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 5 November 2011.

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