In his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double (Le Théâtre et son Double) , French dramatist and actor Antonin Artaurd proposed a theory known as “Theatre of Cruelty”. The purpose was to challenge the text-based canon of theatre and turn it into a sensual and violent spectacle, a mode of performance that liberated from the audience subconscious truths which the shield of pretension and custom had disguised.
Echoes of this ‘metaphysics through the skin’ are present in the latest RSC production of Marat/Sade, directed by Anthony Neilson. The play was originally written in 1963 by the German playwright Peter Weiss. For a theatre more used to the flattering ruse of a Shakespearean farce, this self-consciously rapscallion production bites and bruises the audience with an audacity that is as effective as it is convoluted.
The play’s context is itself an elaborate and unsettling paradigm. Set in a mental asylum in early nineteenth century France, the patients are mounting a play concerning the personality and murder of the French Revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat. Orchestrating the play, or more often interrupting and generally plunging the discourse this way and that, is the Marquis de Sade. The effect is to place Marat and De Sade in philosophical conflict; Marat the left-wing socialist revolutionary and de Sade the self-concerned raconteur of human woe, suffering and individualistic experience.
The inmates of the asylum, portrayed in unflinching realism, suggest a much overlooked reality of political discourse, that of the varied and uneven disunity of personal concerns in a field that sees people predominantly as members of groups, parties and armies. So the inmates fail to stick to script of the play they are meant to be performing. They develop anxieties and obsessions, spinning off into chaotic subplots under the sardonic, disinterested eye of de Sade, who offers comment and parody, but little guidance. As a play about the vicissitudes of revolution, it succeeds in exposing the unpalatable notion that individual suffering persists even after a successful social uprising.
And yet this is to bestow too much coherence on the play. At times provocative, at times frenzied, the play whirls between lucidity and chaos in a manner that impedes any attempt to understand it. This is no doubt the whole point. There are moments when the entire fabric of the play is disrupted as the fourth wall between audience and actors is broken. In one of the most arresting moments of the performance, a disabled actress abandons her character to address the audience personally. Speaking confessionally into a microphone, she gently bemoans her salary paid by the RSC and begins to ask audience members if they have any spare change. In the performance I saw, a man in the second row gave her a twenty pence piece, at which she immediately re-entered character and abused the man for his insensitivity, joined in by a chorus of affront from the rest of the asylum, including de Sade.
Unfortunately, such moments of ingenuity and humour are few. Amid its dark chaos, the play is overly concerned with establishing a subversive, provocative tone, and moreover seems self-satisfied with its attempts. Visceral invocations of torture, folatio, masturbation, and sodomy, hosted within the setting of a mental asylum, lack the rigour and austerity of meaningful counter-attacks. And like most revivals, the new production takes the opportunity to insert bland contemporary motifs that indicate topicality. So Marat becomes modern day activist, a symbol of the Arab Spring, or perhaps a terrorist brandishing a machine gun. De Sade is a suited-up businessman (a banker?) with a proclivity for cross-dressing. In the famous whipping scene, he is not flayed with a lash but contorted by the administrations of a tasar gun. The female torturer then poses for a digital camera with thumbs-up, echoing the images that leaked painfully from the prison at Abu Ghraib. At various other moments during the play, mobile phones, shopping trolleys, and dildos, litter the stage.
Despite their arresting presence, these references lack any sense of valid meaning. The garish panoply of incidents and allusions is predictable and clumsy. The potency of the original setting is thus lost to what feels like a whimsical miscellany of positions. Noise, calamity, flying props, and a lively but somehow arrogant ensemble cast, all added together to produce what was a confused performance and an unsatisfactory piece of theatre. Was this the intention? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.