Peter Weiss, English version by Peter Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Marat/Sade production photo

When travelling to Stratford for the opening night of Anthony Neilson’s RSC Marat/Sade, the unfolding events in Libya dominated the car radio airwaves. Descriptions of a tyrant discovered cowering in a drainage pipe. Of violent crowds, a mob intent on murder. One BBC reporter, describing this as “the latest thunderclap in the Arab Spring,” commented on the confusion and difficulty finding the truth behind what happened. Who had blood on their hands? Was Gaddafi really dead?

Into this horrific scenario came the ultimate evidence. One rebelling Libyan, besmirched with blood, brandished his mobile phone footage as proof. Gaddafi was dead, his gory final moments captured on the hand-held device whose ubiquity and mundanity is as commonplace as a pair of shoes. All of us are reporters. All of us can capture personal records of our own or others’ violence. Gaddafi died under the gaze not of TV or film cameras, but of microchipped personal computers that double as telephones. Pocket-sized recorders of history on a global scale.

The significance of this historical event and the immediacy of its record might go unnoticed but for the overriding imagery of Neilson’s re-imagined Marat/Sade. The patients of the Charenton Asylum, where the Marquis de Sade stages his metadramatic ‘play within a play’, are controlled not by sadistic beatings or cajolings. They are controlled by timely calls on their individual mobile phones, text messages that calm and ease, turning volatile situations into moments of self-reflexion.

Of necessity, this imagery resonates in a nation that only recently emerged from its own mob rule violence. The power of flash-mob mania for crime and thievery, facilitated by social networking and instant messaging, demonstrates the effectiveness of the mobile phone as a weapon to incite. Why not, therefore, as a weapon to quieten and console?

If the inmates of Charenton are so easy to manipulate, it seems surprising that this 1960s version of ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ drama should spiral into such anarchic mayhem. Onstage male rape, water- and taser-torture, bloody murder. The shock of this play when first staged in Peter Brook’s historically-nuanced 1964 RSC production, acclaimed and despised in equal measure, seems understandable.

Performed a year before Edward Bond’s Saved rocked the establishment at the Royal Court for daring to depict the stoning of a baby, Brook’s Marat/Sade must have justified its ‘Cruelty’ soubriquet. The RSC’s 2011 re-envisioning seems a historical anomaly, especially since the 1990s excess of Sarah Kane’s Blasted has already stretched the boundary of onstage sexual abuse, rape and violence. ‘In Yer Face’ nihilism meets ‘Angry Young (European) Men’ antiestablishmentarianism. Been there. Done that.

What is offered instead? The answer, some magnificent performances that transcend the heavy-handed referencing of the ‘War On Terror’. Lisa Hammond is an astonishing Herald, careering around the stage in her Charenton Ltd customized electric wheelchair like a diminutive dominatrix in a silver Boudiccan chariot. Hammond’s rapport with the audience lightens the dated versifying of the late-lamented Adrian Mitchell, whose political radicalism still shouts from his poetry.

Jasper Britton is a disturbed and disturbingly believable Marquis de Sade. This cross-dressing monster, at ease in high heels and a slit skirt as also in full-bodied purdah (yet another allusion to twenty-first century politics that jarred rather than complemented the play), is magnificently evoked by Britton. As he careers around the stage, commanding his troop of incarcerated social misfits, Sade reigns supreme. His anarchic world vision is conjured with warped verisimilitude by Britton’s humorous and entertaining characterization.

Of the inmates, most rely on background histrionics in this decidedly ensemble drama. Most convincing, however, is the Cucurucu of Golda Rosheuvel. No actor portraying mental instability through gesture and theatrical technique, Rosheuvel lives the part in its entirety with an attention to detail that is astonishing. For me, this minor ensemble part added a polished veneer of believability to the evening.

Imogen Doel’s Charlotte Corday, prone to hyperventilation and narcolepsy at the most inopportune moments, was likewise disturbingly real. As convincing was Arsher Ali as Jean-Paul Marat, elevated in his bath but inseparable from his laptop computer. This Marat suffered his wounds with stoic determination, as long as his eyes remained glued to social networking sites. Portrayed with Bin Ladenesque ‘otherness’, Ali’s Marat observed and commented as fellow inmates were hooded and mistreated with Abu Ghraib-inspired cruelty.

If the play’s message is somewhat dated, its technical execution was magnificently high-tech and of today. Chahine Yavroyan’s astonishing transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s very structure into an undulating light-nightmare offered a visual coup d’état. Radical lighting design aside, we are left with committed and enthusiastic RSC actors performing a period drama to the very best of their many abilities. It is a shame that the play, when modernized, glamorized and re-politicized, loses so much of its original political bite. Flash-mob violence captured on a mobile phone? The bloody reality of Libyan unrest makes this western expression of guilt and cruelty seem anxiously tame indeed.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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