Peter Brook’s 1964 staging of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade for the RSC was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life as a young journalist. The magnificently titled Persecution and Assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade was a knockout. With Patrick Magee as de Sade, Ian Richardson as the Herald (later as Marat) and Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday, the play’s argument between de Sade’s belief only in the warts and all of one’s own self and Marat’s faith in utopian socialist revolution made spellbinding theatre, the dialectics irresistibly packaged with song and dance routines and the brilliance of Peter Brook’s production.
It was, I suppose, inevitable that in revisiting the Asylum for the RSC’s 50th birthday season, the brave director Anthony Neilson should transpose the French revolutionary context to the Middle-Eastern ferment of today. You get the picture at once from Corday in improvised military fatigues (worn over an ‘I ♥ Paris’ T-shirt), the casting of an Asian Marat (Arsher Ali), ensconced in his bath with a laptop, and Khyam Allami’s versions of Richard Peaslee’s original tunes.
The inmates are no longer distressing embodiments of insanity. Here they’re kitted out in white protective clothing as though against nuclear fallout, a chorus who can safely be entrusted with smartphones, machineguns and to do whatever they’re asked. Should compulsive masturbation and the voicing of extreme revolutionary sentiment get out of hand, the asylum’s director and impresario of the therapeutic theatricals, Coulmier, has the WiFi means to deliver punitive electric shocks. This is unfortunately no match for Weiss’s idea, perfectly executed by Brook, that the inmates are under the closest supervision of male nurses ‘with long white aprons which give them the appearance of butchers. They carry batons in the pockets of their aprons.’ And indeed there was much to do for those batons.
The spectacular miming of tumbrel rides and guillotine executions (buckets of red and, yes, of blue blood) has disappeared in favour of generalised stage uproar, though this does include the disembowelling of a procession of Fat Pig bankers. The most notable Neilsonian take on Weiss, however, is the playing up of deviant sexuality at the expense of the political content. ‘De Sade’ is Neilson’s green light to suggest that his ‘charade’ is fundamentally a gratification of his own fantasies and, more surprisingly, of those of Coulmier.
One of Brook’s most memorable episodes was Sade’s whipping by Corday, Glenda Jackson sweeping her long hair to and fro across his bared back while he gaspingly recounted his own role in the Revolution. In Neilson we find Sade, in blond wig, dress, stockings and lowered panties, being tortured — guess where — by shocks from Corday’s Taser gun. Other disguises are in store for Sade and for the seemingly respectable Coulmier (Christopher Ettridge), but I shouldn’t spoil the fun by giving these away.
Where Patrick Magee, schooled in Beckett, was eerily lugubrious and chillingly precise, Jasper Britton gives us a relatively relaxed Sade, as at ease in a business suit as in his later transformations, and with a hint of relishing the mayhem he’s unleashed. There’s more of a problem with Arsher Ali who lacks the fanaticism crucial to Marat and to the necessary tension between himself and Sade. His eventual death, as you might have guessed, is by gunshot and not by the knife so carefully described in the text. It’s followed up with the screening of a ‘video testament’ as habitually left by suicide bombers — the snag being that Marat was planning his ‘fourteenth of July call to the people of France’ and not to do away with himself.
Corday herself is well taken by Imogen Doel, her gruesome fantasy of a head still seeing when severed from the body being impressively staged. It’s hard though to think of any good reason for arranging a sex change for the Herald who’s the MC of Sade’s entertainment, especially as the role requires a clarity of diction and vocal projection that Lisa Hammond lacked — a fault sadly shared by too many in the cast. But happily not by Nathaniel Martello-White as the priest Jacques Roux, Theo Ogundipe as Marat’s hilarious nurse, Simonne, fumbling for bandages in her handbag, and Lanre Malaolu as Duperret, Corday’s over-excitable suitor.
Neilson’s revival was always a high-risk venture. It will doubtless serve to introduce Marat/Sade to a new audience, albeit one that may find it hard to keep up with its content. For the updating gimmickry confuses rather than enlightens. It only weakens the powerful debates about revolutionary politics and freedom of the individual, about action versus imagination, that are at the heart of this great play. These are most likely to seize the imagination when the specific Napoleonic framework of Weiss’s work is honoured rather than eclipsed.