Sunday, October 16, 2011
Should a play "work for you"? Preview 15 October 2011 Marat/Sade @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Marat/Sade - or to give its full title "The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade" - is currently being revived by the RSC at Stratford.
This was always going to be a dangerous proposition, for despite Peter Weiss's German play being an intentionally provocative work, the RSC's 1964 production has passed into legendary status. Originally translated by Geoffrey Skelton, but brought to verse life by poet Adrian Mitchell, the original RSC version had been directed by Peter Brooks, and had starred Ian Richardson (as the Herald - though in the US production he took over the role of Marat), Clive Revill (as Marat) Patrick McGee (as De Sade) and Glenda Jackson (as Charlotte Corday). It was an incendiary play, and an incendiary production - still strongly recalled by all who saw it --- as the comments surrounding the current production indicate.
So bringing it back to life in the 21st century was always going to be a risky strategy as a way of demonstrating the RSC still had the power to be radical: firstly, because it is doing radical things elsewhere (both with new plays and the direction of some of its Shakespeare productions); and secondly because - guess what? It's a REVIVAL and what is ever going to be radical about revisiting the past?
Quite a lot it seems, and that the production may not quite work is only part of such radicalism.
Do remember that I'm commenting here on a Preview performance (only the second). A few technical and performance hiccups were clearly still present, but no-one and nothing seemed to come to lasting harm. Note as well that the play is only on for approximately 3 weeks (opening 14 October and closing 5 November: I predict a spectacular finale suitable to the date when it closes).
Unsurprisingly, several people left the production at the interval which is timed approximately 2/3 of the way through the show --- the couple next to Neil grumpily stayed for the second part and she at least was clearly negatively comparing the show to the version she had previously seen [I didn't catch if it was the notorious first RSC version, it may have been the Daniel Craig one...]. If I had a pound for every time she muttered darkly "It's just not working for me" I'd have made at least a tenner, with which I'd have given her a subscription to a decent newspaper since she seemed to think the Daily Mail was a suitable read....
Anyway, in contrast, the woman sat beside me seemed to positively revel in this desperately uncomfortable play. She chuckled heartily many times, for although this is a play (and production) that throws harsh lighting on uncomfortable realities, it is not without absurd humour.
To say the play comes across as uneven need not necessarily be a criticism: rather there is nevertheless an inchoate quality to the performance as a whole that makes the production perhaps even more chaotic and unfathomable for its largely middle-class audience than they would anticipate. The RSC letter to advance ticket purchasers certainly tipped them off about the foreseeable combined violence, nudity and "religious imagery", but I don't know to what extent they were all ready for the distinctly non-revolutionary France 'setting' for the play.
What works best are some of these relocation updates and the directorial flourishes associated with these. Connections to the recent riots, the uprisings in the Arab Spring (and other Middle East associations) abound everywhere. Technology, particularly mobile phones, are used incredibly well and in a way that goes beyond mere invocations of Abu Ghraib but into thoughts of control and distractedness from humanity. The blurring between post-Revolutionary France and contemporary events feels even more heightened in this age of increasingly fast mass communication, certainly more than even the 1960s could have anticipated. When the crowd/the inmates cry out for their revolution there is a crackle of recognition that makes the text of the play as relevant as it would have been in the 1960s.
What work less well are some of the moments of vocalisation (sometimes the singing and the music, the spoken text and the noise become over-layered in a way that just makes them unintelligible - but it is never clear whether that may be the point). The production is also not helped by some of the racially iffy consequences of colour-blind casting: sometimes you really do have to think about what certain characters are doing, saying and gesturing to others in the light of each performers race. Additionally, one can't help but feel that the production doesn't quite break down enough the barriers between audience (within the play) and the theatre audience - for all the popcorn, thrown clothing and minor entries into the seated areas. The use of the thrust stage and balconies to place actors amidst the audience is already well-used by the RSC and so its use here perhaps needed to be even more radical and confrontational in order to challenge the audience out of their comfort zone of passive observers.
Nevertheless, there are some stand-out performances which for me made the production work and will make it memorable as an experience.
Jasper Britton as de Sade was incredible. At times he looks astonishingly like his father (actor Tony Britton) and I'm not sure if that makes the performance more or less disturbing. Certainly, his moments of transformation - he gets a number of costume changes - are carried off with breathtaking confidence. His de Sade is both manipulative and disconcertingly weak: perhaps in just the right measure. His playing against the control of Coulmier (Christopher Ettridge), the Governor of the Asylum is particularly well handled.
Similarly, Lisa Hammond makes for a discomforting Herald: her sexuality is heightened, not ignored, and her disability acknowledged and provocatively played upon. I hope she gets further opportunities with the RSC, and hopefully ones that allow her talents to be appreciated. She conveyed wit and malice with incredible power.
Arsher Ali also made for an excellent Marat, initially uncertain in his performance (as befitting his inmate status) but growing in frustration and self-awareness as the play progresses; his need to proclaim, his need to speak and be hear, sound like the buried sensibilities of reasoned analysis amidst a time of revolution. He is the most broken by the insistent reminders from Coulmier that it's now 1808 and things are different... (when really audience, actors, inmates and the play-within-play audience all know it is nothing of the sort).
Both Nicholas Day and Andrew Melville are under-used in this production, and both suffer enormously for their contributions to the play: but they nevertheless contribute to the unsettling feeling of incoherence that surrounds the performance. More disappointingly Corday (as played by Imogen Doel) never seems to take on the full weight of importance one feels she should have within the play. She comes across as a puppet to other's plans (both as Charlotte and the narcoleptic inmate playing her), which may be just right but somehow seems less pertinent than it could be.
Elsewhere, there are disconcerting and erratic performances from within the ensemble: Maya Barcot as Rossignol, Golda Rosheuvel as Cucurucu, and Amanda Wilkin as Kokol sing magnificently but can come across too often as performers playing inmates playing performers --- and I'm not sure that level of meta-playing is quite what the play wants to alert us to. Similarly, Lanre Malaolu as Duperret (the ever masturbating sex maniac) works best when in his moments of 'lucidity' and articulation - which is probably the intended counterpoint of his ever-more pathetic inability to exert physical self-control.
Despite my misgivings and uncertainties about the production 'working' - and the more I think about last night's play, the less certain I am what it would mean for the play to 'work' - everyone is clearly giving everything they have to this work and I can only imagine the exhaustion and psychological weirdness that must surround their performing in this hysterical play (since it is hysterical in so many senses). I can't help but applaud the effort of the RSC to challenge boundaries - but I'm not sure that reviving this play, with all its actorly baggage, was necessarily the best way to do it. The (sub)text references to contemporary events are well-intentioned, but I'm unclear about the extent to which audiences will be stirred to think differently as they may have done in the 1960s to the contemporary relevances invoked then. It's therefore an honourable take on a problematic work --- it will be interesting to see how others react.