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October 23, 2011 6:39 pm
In 1964, Peter Brook’s production of The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade was one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s early sensations both in Britain and on Broadway. Now it has been revived as part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and in particular that strand which emphasises the RSC’s commitment to new writing.
In Adrian Mitchell’s translation, rhyming and free verse and song jostle against one another in much the same way as disparate subjects, political philosophies and levels of indecorousness do in Peter Weiss’s play.
It is a comprehensively perverse work ... not simply in sexual terms (although the presence of the Divine Marquis guarantees as much) but also in its constant challenges to both dramatic conventions and audience composure. Weiss’s characters morph in and out of the play-within-the-play and harangue us as much as each other, repeatedly interrupting and subverting the action, such as it is. If any contemporary director could steer a navigable course from these charts, it is Anthony Neilson, although his characteristic approach is more “full steam ahead and let’s see whether we ram into something interesting”.
On this occasion, the ports of call include dressing Jasper Britton’s de Sade variously in a business suit, a burka, as either JR Ewing or George W. Bush and twice in full drag, on one of which occasions he is bound and, instead of being flogged as the script details, repeatedly Tasered. Other characters include a narcoleptic, a Black Power agitator and a compulsive masturbator. The effective MC of the proceedings is played by Lisa Hammond, an actor of restricted growth whose motorised wheelchair is several times seconded by others. Neilson and his company keep matters animated for over two and a half hours; it is entirely apposite that sometimes this is the animation of toilet-wall cartoons.
And it is necessary, because the substance of the play has dated terribly. True, the culture of repressive tolerance that Weiss was inveighing against is now fully ingrained in our society. However, neither Marat’s violent proletarian revolution nor de Sade’s libidinous libertarian anarchism offer credible alternatives today. The production may jolt us out of our comfort zone, but towards the potential of what else, it cannot make a plausible 21st-century proposal.
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