The idea and allure of revolution as a theatrical theme appears to be popular, especially if you take the Hamilton craze that has taken the world by storm as example. But there is a phenomenal revolutionary commentary that predates these ‘modern’ voices, and brings an even deeper, more philosophical, timelessly adaptive perspective to this theme in the form of a play, Marat/Sade, penned by Peter Weiss.
Originally written in German as a play set just after the French Revolution in the historical Charenton Asylum, the complete title of the play is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of Monsieur de Sade. The long and short title of the play has a legislative feel, where each Act of Parliament has a short title (used to reference it) and a long title (giving explanatory context to it). Appropriate for the undeniable political undertone of the play, calling for rule by the people.
As audience member you enter the theatre not just as a random patron, but rather as the invited guest, among family and friends, of the director of the asylum, Coulmier. Coulmier very symbolically tries to micro manage the production as presented by the patients, to negate any bad reflection on the administration of the day, but as is the case with any revolution his controlling attempts rather feeds the flames of imminent uprising. This all ingeniously makes the audience part of a play within a play.
Stand-out performances on opening night in the Baxter Theatre presented staging of this play was definitely Charlton George (Jean-Paul Marat), Christelle Dreyer (Simonne Evrard), Tinarie van Wyk Loots (Charlotte Corday), and Richard September (Jacques Roux). Special mention must be made of the exceptional Andrew Laubscher for his performance as Herald, the narrator of the play to which you are an invited guest, as staged under direction of the Marquis de Sade, played by Mncedisi Shbangu.
As the play progresses, revolutionary voracity infects the patients, incited by their director de Sade, in their re-enactment of the assassination of political activist Marat. Through their acts of rebellion (including a very impressive trapeze type stunt arguably a symbolic hint to the blasphemy historically associated with de Sade), it becomes apparent that extremists, manipulated followers, liberals and freedom fighters are always ever present regardless of historic time and space. Once a revolutionary movement tastes victory, the new leaders of the day are entrapped by that which they professed to be fighting… power and self-indulgence. It ultimately begs the question: are the calls for revolution but a ploy, exploiting the people and their dire socio-economic realities as means to an end by their ‘leaders’? That devastating inquiry is strongly proffered by the ensemble and the strong-statement-laced expressionist choreography of Grant van Ster.
When initially staged in the 60s, this play of Weiss was frequently met with shock and surprise at its perverse political expression through the chaotic over exaggerated antics of lunatics. In the present day the shock element may be less, but the introspective mirror it holds to the chaotic state of our times in this current staging, is perhaps more of a surprising indictment than it was as an initially surreal stage renaissance. That the current staging under the direction of Jaco Bouwer is a powerful statement is indisputable. On opening night there seemed to be general agreement that this is a commentary that everyone in South Africa should see, to shake us out of the threatening pre-revolutionary slumber we seem to be in.
One aspect of the play that did elicit some debate afterwards was Mncedisi Shbangu’s portrayal of de Sade. As de Sade, the director of the lunatic’s production, you would expect a stronger presence from a man who was notoriously sadistic, often imprisoned, and a rumoured psychopath due to his alleged mistreatment of prostitutes. Yet he comes across as a rather, mostly passive, indulgent observer, just feeding off the chaos more so than actually inciting and delighting in it. As narrator, Andrew Laubscher’s character Herald rather took on a stronger directing presence in relation to the lunatics, which added to his very impressive performance.
As far as the design goes, this is also not the visually explosive Jaco Bouwer out-of-the-box touch we have recently come to expect, as reflected in Rooiland and Samsa Masjien, where the theatre space almost emerged as an extra character with its own unique personality. Here, Bouwer instead opted for a blank canvas of clinical white, giving a nod to the mental asylum setting, but also making it obvious that the text and the message remains relevant regardless of the setting or time. The design choice also does remind one a bit of the 1964 Schiller Theatre staging in Berlin. The blank canvas and varying platform levels, render the stage design open to purely performance based amplification. The only splash of dangerous colour being that of the dress donned by Marat’s assassin, the water he is 'cleansed' with, and the accusatory paint literally and very dramatically splashed at his inciter as the play climaxes. It is in this generic blank canvas form of the design that its power thus lies. You can be anywhere, at any time, in any place, depending on where the insanity lures you to.
In the end, it almost felt disrespectful to applaud too loudly or give a standing ovation after experiencing a play that was clearly intended to leave the audience contemplative instead of exuberant. It is a double edged sword. Exiting the Baxter Flipside Theatre people were talking in hushed tones, with multiple whispers echoing the sentiment, “wow, that is so relevant for today, for us, for South Africa…”.
Fellow theatre fanatic, Charmaine van der Merwe, captures the essence of the Marat/Sade opening night experience perfectly:
“From the moment you sit down, looking at the strange shadow play behind the white ‘curtain’ before you, you realise that you are no longer in the real world. As Marat/Sade starts to unfold you find that you are IN the asylum. As you consider the rhymes, the songs, you forget that the play is set in France and you realise that your own world is crazy. Mara/Sade has so many levels, so much symbolism (simplicity, colour, obsession to name but a few) that you cannot just see it once. I went in with high expectations and I wasn’t disappointed.”
You can see this stimulating and provocative staging of Marat/Sade at the Baxter Theatre until 25 March 2017. Go challenge your perspectives and boundaries of reality, and dare to walk with the revolutionary lunatics to truly see the power struggle at the heart of it all. Book your tickets at Computicket.