Translated by Geoffrey Skelton
Directed by Barry French
542 King Street, Newtown
Season: 5 October – 5 November
Theatre can be a powerful platform for revolutionary ideas. In a relatively politically apathetic society, the arts provides a crucial thinkspace to explore what would otherwise go unsaid, unexplored, untouched. Using elements of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Brechtian tropes of alienation, Barry French has bold visions for this production of Marat/Sade – a show that could not otherwise be approached with a tenderfoot.
Right from when the audience enters the theatre, we’re catapulted into a space that gives a strong sense of what we’re in for. Tom Bannerman’s set design visually epitomises what this play is about. An enormous cage – a jail cell – frames the performance space, in the round. Marat rocks on a small boat, in amongst a tumultuous ocean. We get to observe these people in restrictive confines, railing against the forces that hem them in, by whatever means possible. Be it singing songs crying for liberation, ignoring social acceptability by imitating sex acts in front of an audience or physically fighting against the jail walls…this is certainly a fascinating concept.
French has honourably ambitious intentions with his production of Marat/Sade. He upturns the play’s traditional setting of the French Asylum, detailing events surrounding the French revolution, and attempts to replace this with a contemporary setting of a detention centre for Asylum Seekers – as stated in his director’s note. However this did not read clearly to me, and while I could see touches of it at points in the play which were effective, I couldn’t otherwise observe this adapted setting. The play is packed with radical ideas, that while have been around for hundreds of years, remain pertinent today. However French’s direction doesn’t elucidate these messages, allowing them to blur together. There is plenty of action in the production, and with a massive cast that remains on stage virtually the entire time, always plenty to catch your eye. This is wonderful! But clarity is needed to pinpoint the messages to stop it from turning into a confusing rabble. Good work was lost in the wave of action.
It is tough work for actors to portray inmates in the throes of insanity, remaining on stage for the entire play. Not all manage a convincing performance, nor does there feel to be a convincing level of threat and oppression sustained throughout the play that I think is required to pull off true Theatre of Cruelty. It seems to sit back and be a little too comfortable to watch for my liking. In saying this, when the play reaches its climax it becomes utterly exhilarating. The actors shriek viciously for freedom riddled with frantic desperation – at its peak, I had goosebumps and was transfixed. It shows this concept can work. Annette van Roden does wonderful work as Jean-Paul Marat, plagued with sickness and yet a resolute leader of these revolutionary attitudes. There is a magical light in her eyes when she performs that snatches your attention. Debra Bryan is gloriously unhinged as an asylum inmate, relishing the opportunity to interact directly with the audience. She continually opts for unexpected choices, simultaneously delighting and confronting the audience. Garreth Cruikshank portrays a devastating downfall as Simmone, Marat’s devoted carer, which is heartbreaking to watch.
We by no means live in a perfect political ideal. Today, there continues to be an overwhelming amount of issues that are worth us getting angry about. Corporate corruption, torture and abuse of people in offshore detention centres, and the marginalisation of vulnerable groups is just a dip in the pool of despicable wrongs in our society. Theatre that gets angry and gets you thinking is invaluable, and for that, Marat/Sade should be applauded.