By: Peter Weiss, English version by Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by: Anthony Neilson
Date: Friday 4th November 2011
I’m not fond of protest plays at the best of times, and even though this play was set circa the French revolution, it certainly wasn’t the best of times for us tonight. The underlying intention of shocking the audience into a new view of the world and events never seems to succeed with me, and I find myself expanding my understanding more through sympathetic treatments of difficult subjects or through humour rather than polemics.
The original production, put on by the RSC in the early 1960s, was a response to events at that time, expressing the frustration and anger at the way western society appeared to have failed to bring about a better world for all. There was still social injustice, war, hunger, poverty, ignorance, and many a bra was as yet unburned. Coupled with this discontent was the belief that a better world was possible, a peaceful world where all needs were met and everyone lived a happy and fulfilled life. Well, we were all young once. The older generation, having fought and lived through at least one world war (some had managed two) were perhaps more content with a spell of peace and the end of rationing, but hold the slippers and cocoa for a while, as we take a trip to a lunatic asylum somewhere in France during the reign of Napoleon.
The set was fairly simple, but contained some ingredients of menace. The balcony above the stage at the back held the musicians and some chairs for the on stage audience – the director of the asylum, his ‘guest’ (a very attractive young lady) and several other people, including an Arab gentleman. Below this balcony was a row of security barriers, the sort with alternating bars; these worked like revolving doors. There were four ladders arching out from the sides of the stage – two each side- and connecting with the circle balconies. And above all this was a white circular thing which was lit by a flickering light from time to time – I don’t really know what that was about.
The main piece of furniture was the bath that Marat is killed in – this mainly rose up through the floor, but was wheeled off at one point and brought back on again later. Marat sat in it for long periods – his skin must have been so wrinkly – working on his laptop. There was a loo at one point, and various props such as buckets full of pig entrails, mobile phones, dildos, etc. The costumes were modern, and a lot of the references were contemporary too – hijabs, Marat filming his terrorist manifesto, tasering a prisoner, etc.
The idea of the play is that the Marquis de Sade, who has been locked up in the lunatic asylum for being seriously unpleasant, is putting on a play about the death of Marat with the help of his fellow inmates. The asylum’s professed purpose is to help these poor lunatics, so artistic endeavours are encouraged, and the director and guests are attending the performance along with members of the public (us) to see the results.
My first difficulty with this production was that I couldn’t make out the dialogue very well. Some bits were fine – Jasper Britton as de Sade was good, and one or two others were usually OK – but I lost large chunks of the story, particularly Charlotte Corday’s bits. That meant I couldn’t engage with the characters, and so I lost interest fairly early on. Marat and Corday’s stories were interspersed with the story of the lunatic asylum, and in many ways that was the more interesting, and disturbing, part of the evening.
Every inmate had a mobile phone, and when any of them transgressed seriously enough, they received a text message from the director. All well and good, you may think, but then the creepy bit happened. The offender would kneel on one of the walkways, take out a black hood from a pouch in their trousers, and put it on, They then had to stay in that position for several minutes as a punishment. And the scariest thing was the way all the inmates accepted this treatment – what had they been subjected to beforehand to make them so compliant?
The tasering was also uncomfortable to watch. It was a part of the ‘show’ in which de Sade starred. He was expounding his philosophy at the time, while also being chained up and then tasered by the inmate playing Charlotte Corday. At one point, she stopped briefly to have her picture taken beside her ‘victim’, with her thumbs up. All of these images evoked the gratuitous violence of the torture camps and prisoners of war, but the point was hard to fathom. Comments were made at the post-show discussion about the public being de-sensitised to violence, but Steve and I have probably seen more horrific images when we were growing up, courtesy of WWI, Vietnam, etc., images that just wouldn’t be shown nowadays. And in the time of the play, just after the French Revolution and in Napoleon’s reign, people regularly saw acts of extreme cruelty and violence which would drive most of us insane.
My problems with using these images on stage are twofold. Firstly, I know it’s a play, so if things get too bad I protect myself by either looking away or by disengaging with the performance. It’s not real, and what matters to me is the emotional impact such depictions can have if used wisely. In fact, there’s often a greater impact when the images aren’t so graphic – less is more. The other problem is my awareness of how often images in the media have been faked, specifically to generate a response of disgust or horror. After many years, I’m not so easily hooked by this sort of sensationalism, which again undercuts any impact the production is hoping to have. In the tasering case, there’s also the difficulty that de Sade opted for the experience, so although Jasper Britton’s suffering was horrifying real-looking, I still wasn’t as affected as the creative team may have intended.
Having heard some stories about the nature of the audience participation, I was also braced for more revolting objects being thrown amongst us than actually happened, which was sort of a relief, but then that expectation may have also kept me from being engaged with the performance – not very helpful. We do our best to avoid this sort of foreknowledge, but it didn’t work this time as the fuss was too high profile – damn the Daily Mail!
So now for the good bits – this won’t take long. Apart from Jasper Britton, who’s always watchable, I liked Golda Rosheuvel very much. Her lunatic act was heartbreakingly believable; she seemed to be listening to voices in her own head, and her occasional claps punctuated the action very cleverly, while still being a sign of her madness. Of course, not everyone in the asylum was there because they were mentally ill, so some of the inmates looked pretty normal, if somewhat scared, but there were also one or two false notes struck in the madness department which let the side down.
One of the other inmates had a sex obsession, and this was played with great gusto by Lanre Malaolu. He was so distracted by his lustful urges that he could hardly get his lines out, apart from a couple of minutes when he’d relieved himself by humping the stage. I also liked Christopher Ettridge’s Director Coulmier; whenever the inmates’ play became too satirical, he was quick to point out how much better things were under Napoleon. At the end, he also takes his clothes off and has some words scrawled on his body. I couldn’t make out if his craziness at the end was meant to imply that he was also crazy, or that the whole world was full of crazy people, or what, but it was an amusing ending.
The music was also good – kept my feet tapping – but despite the cast’s best efforts I just didn’t enjoy this very much. I can understand the desire to bring the play up-to-date, and make it more relevant to today’s world, as well as getting away from any memories of the original production, but I found this approach too bitty. From the post-show we learned that the cast had worked on their characters for the first four weeks, without looking at the text. They’d only turned to that when they ‘knew who they were’, and then had four weeks working with the text. From my perspective, treating a play with such disrespect and focusing on aspects of the performance that aren’t actually going to come across to an audience as readily as the dialogue seems to explain the lacklustre nature of this production.
There was also a very short actress, Lisa Hammond, who played the herald. She had a motorised wheelchair, and was a sort of mistress of ceremonies, a role she shared with de Sade. At one point, she turned to the audience and spun a sob story about being short of money. Getting down into the stalls, she even asked one chap in the audience for money, and apparently he gave it to her! Twenty quid! Nothing much came of it, so I’ve no idea why that was included. At the post-show we found out she varies what she needs the money for. Tonight it was food, but it’s also been shoes and other things.
I might be willing to see another production of this play in the future, but it would probably have to take a different approach to tonight’s version. We couldn’t get a copy of the text – all sold out – so I can’t fill in the blanks and gauge the quality of the play itself. I suspect there’s a lot more there than was on show tonight, despite the blow job and de Sade’s wide-ranging wardrobe.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me