Skip to main content
theatre review

Essentially, what we’re watching is a play-within-a-play – a group of mentally ill people performing a drama set in the middle of the French Revolution.Cylla von Tiedemann

The 1960s: I think you had to be there.

Marat/Sade is just one of those critical and popular sensations from that not-quite-revolutionary era that makes me scratch my head, peering back from this no-longer-new millennium, anyway.

As far as I can tell, this German play that took Broadway by storm 50 years ago was a Hair for the literary set. Soulpepper's entertaining, energetic and often baffling new production certainly treats it as such – as a proto-rock opera with avant-garde aspirations.

Mike Ross's very clever new score for the songs in the show draws inspiration not just from Bertolt Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill, but from all sorts of theatrical music that's since tried to capture the idea of revolution. There are nods to Hair's Galt MacDermot, but also Rent's Jonathan Larson, as well as a bit of ear-shattering screamo and a rather hilarious parody of Les Misérables.

Marat/Sade premiered in West Berlin in 1964, but Peter Weiss's verse drama is mainly remembered in our part of the world because of director Peter Brook's notable production of the English-language premiere that same year at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It transferred to Broadway in 1965 and influenced a generation of theatremakers.

The general premise of Weiss's play is encapsulated in its full, too-long-to-tweet title: 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.

Essentially, what we're watching is a play-within-a-play – a group of mentally ill people performing a drama set in the middle of the French Revolution, written and directed by de Sade after the revolution is over and Napoleon has become dictator. The nihilistic individualist de Sade (a deadpan Diego Matamoros) frequently stops the action to debate the merits of the revolution with his version of the ruthless idealist Marat (Stuart Hughes, stirring in his anguish).

Weiss's fascinating script – equally inspired by the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht and by Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty – has both anarchy and skepticism in its soul. Marat's assassin, Charlotte Corday (Katherine Gauthier), neatly sums up the problem with the Revolution:

"Once both of us saw the world must go / And change as we read in the great Rousseau / But change meant one thing to you I see / And something quite different to me."

What made Marat/Sade no doubt titillating in the 1960s – its asylum setting – is essentially what makes it impossible to stage as written today. Brook's original production, which he later turned into a film, was guilty of all sorts of romanticized or grotesque portrayals of people with mental disabilities. Audiences went for this sexually charged freak show, but stayed for the dialectical verse drama.

For Soulpepper's production, director Albert Schultz has added an additional frame to Weiss's play – one that muddies the conceit, but spares us a stage full of actors going (in the words of Ben Stiller's satirical comedy Tropic Thunder) "full retard."

We are now somehow both at the Asylum of Charenton in 1808 and the Soulpepper Theatre in 2015. Inmates have been brought in to entertain and edify us, the bourgeois spectators, though the stage has been transformed into a giant cage to protect us and a guard with a taser stands watch.

Right off the bat, however, these performers seem more like a group of actors who have had a few too many Red Bulls than inmates at an asylum. Indeed, in an early scene we can watch six of them play a piano all at once while it it is spun by other actors – and Marat spins in his bathtub on the other side of the stage.

What we're watching are exceptional actors, not amateur ones, and so all the bits where, for instance, the actor playing Charlotte Corday struggles with her narcolepsy, or the actor playing Corday's lover Duperret (Gregory Prest) tries to stifle his satyriasis fall flat.

If Schultz's staging fails at a coherent vision for Weiss's play, it doesn't commit the larger sin of ever becoming boring. Meanwhile, the battle of ideas still emerges – and in a very ear-pleasing fashion, thanks to Ross's score, performed by a talented group of actors/musicians.

Prest is, as always, a stand-out as Duperret, sending up rock-opera pretensions with panache, while Frank Cox-O'Connell seems genuinely on fire with idealism as the radical priest Jacques Roux.

Only Gauthier as Corday struggles amid the principals, in part because the narcoleptic conceit is ruined and in part because she has been uncomfortably sexualized, even performing a little strip show in silhouette; the production's approach to women seems stuck the 1960s as well, and a little cross-gender casting would have made it more palatable today.

A few digs at the Conservative government at the end – the muzzling of scientists, the reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis – come too late to really resonate in the context of the play. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I ultimately enjoyed watching the Soulpepper crew let their hair down and give this sixties sensation a shake.