You’ve only got another ten days to see Peter
Weiss’s Marat/Sade in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It’s a rare
opportunity to see a production of perhaps the best example of Theatre of
Cruelty from almost half a century ago.
First produced by the RSC in 1964 the play was
controversial, mainly because of its overlapping quadruple metaphor – that
madness, politics, theatre and sexual behaviour are metaphors for each other.
The play shocked when it was first performed in Britain because audiences were
not used to graphic sexual content. We have become so used to this that I
expected the play to look creaky and old-fashioned and to a certain extent it
does. Awash with alienation techniques, ensuring that the audience does not become
engaged emotionally with the characters, it certainly doesn’t adhere to any of
the quick, sharp sound-bite techniques that we have become used to in this
digital age. It is very long, designed to be so, all the more since it is
almost an hour and three quarters to the interval by which time the idea has
been hammered into the audience’s heads that, in contrast to the naive optimism
of the early sixties of Beatlemania, we are all buggers or all buggered,
graphically shown by the rape scene and the end of the first part. All very
So imagine my amazement to read the front page article
in Stratford’s free rag, Midweek Herald,
by a modern-day Mary Whitehouse called Sandy Holt (as naive as Mary Whitehouse over
Romans in Britain and as ignorant of
theatre) which begins:
The Royal Shakespeare Company has
said it has no intention of pulling the show
that has seen hundreds of its
audience walk out because of its gross indecency,
nudity and scenes of torture.
audiences (perhaps tainted by the twenty-first century popularity of
fundamentalism) are no more able to deal with metaphor and no more able to
engage their brains than some members of London audiences were in the 1960s and
70s. And, curiously, it’s sex that shocks these modern-day Whitehouses. Not
religion, not politics, not psychosis – sex.
production is beautifully choreographed. A large cast is deployed with
consummate ease through a vast range of blocking movements. The timeless, placeless set with metaphorical
scaffolding and a padded floor are constant reminders of the asylum that the
play is set in, that we are witnessing and that we ourselves are metaphorically
part of. The alienation technique of having characters break character, of
featuring actors playing asylum inmates assuming characters which are only
intermittently consistent because they can’t remember the play means that it is
hard to sit back and admire the acting. In a sense this, too, is part of the
metaphorical patterning of the play. We may be alienated from the realness of
the characters but we can still become from time to time engaged with some
aspect of what they are enacting. I had not realised in 1964 how Adrian
Mitchell’s rhyming couplets also strike a dissonant tone – a further metaphor
at the heart of the text’s structure.
is a fine ensemble piece where the audience is never sure what will happen next
because the world it depicts is Absurd, all enacted by mental patients – Absurdity on a quite different
are, of course, oddities. Perhaps nowadays audiences are less familiar with
Brechtian devices than they were half a century ago, but within play audiences,
multiple shifts of character, characters playing characters playing characters,
improvisation and pseudo improvisation have all found their way into movies and
production is no mere historical reconstruction. It is brilliantly updated,
with masses of references to what has happened since 1964 – Thatcher’s
‘glorious years’, Guantanamo Bay, the final days and death of Bin Laden, Islamic movements, even Big
Brother, to name but a few – both
intentional and unintentional. The
director cannot have thought of the power of seeing the production on the day
that Gaddafi was killed with all the complex moral horror associated with that.
of Cruelty speaks of the unspeakable. Amazingly and quite against my
expectations this 2011 production did, too. Watch for the many ways in which the brilliant
director Anthony Neilson has created contemporary resonances and references.
Listen carefully to Khyam Allami’s wonderful score (and buy a programme to read
his excellent article).
Go see it
before it’s too late. And if you want to stay overnight a warm welcome awaits
you at Moss Cottage.