MARAT/SADE. Written by Peter Weiss. Directed by Jaco Bouwer. With Mncedisi Shabangu, Charlton George, Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Bongile Mantsai, Zoleka Helesi, Richard September, Andrew Laubscher, Marty Kintu, Tankiso Mamabolo, Christelle Dreyer, Llandi Beeslaar, Sjaka Septembir, Siphenathi Mayekiso, Faith Kinniar, Grant van Ster and Luvuyo Mabuto. Designed by Jaco Bouwer. Costume design by Birrie Le Roux. Lighting design by Patric Curtis. Movement choreography by Grant van Ster. Composer Pierre-Henri Wicomb.

TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews

There’s a low intensity hum peculiar to psychiatric hospitals that seems to encapsulate the fettered mental energy straining against captivity. It’s this perfect tonal pitch as you enter the Flipside theatre that is one of the enhancements which transforms the space from stage to asylum. Seats clad in white fabric and voluminous lengths of cloth make the space feel at once expansive because of the unbroken palette and slightly claustrophobic. As the curtain is raised and you catch the first glimpse of this carnivalesque cohort of insanity you fall in to an altered state of reality with a voyeuristic sense of inevitability. Bouwer has designed the place of nightmares replete with nurses capable of stilling dissent with a withering glance or pressurised water and the ever present threat of leather straps.

Cast member suspended from the stage roof: Siphenathi Mayekiso, Mncedisi Shabangu and Charlton George in 'Marat/Sade'. Photograph: Oscar O' Ryan
Siphenathi Mayekiso, Mncedisi Shabangu and Charlton George in ‘Marat/Sade’. Photograph: Oscar O’ Ryan

Play within a play

The conceit of a play within a play, in this case The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is the vehicle with which Marat and Sade engage with notions of freedom and revolution. Bouwer admits in his director’s note to a certain difficulty in talking about revolution from his position as a white and privileged man. Despite this he has revealed the crux of the dilemma, the post revolution state echoing the post coital sense of exhaustion. The piece interrogates Marat’s contention, “How could liberty ever establish itself amongst us? Apart from a few tragic scenes, the revolution has been nothing but a web of farcical scenes.”

Many of the cast are unrecognisable and it takes a few minutes to place each of them. Completely recognisable and imminently watchable though is Mncedisi Shabangu. He directs the play and provides a counter argument to Marat’s fervent belief in the intrinsic value of revolt. As he recounts the savage imagery of his worst nightmares he may very well be recounting the images that stream regularly across our screens – women escaping with their lives in tatters, damaged men with broken limbs. It is one of many moments in the play that feel eerily current.

Simply sublime

Two cast members in Marat/Sade sitting down
Christelle Dreyer and Luvuyo Mabatu in ‘Marat/Sade’. Photograph: Oscar O’ Ryan

Charlton George in the role of Marat, is simply sublime. Marat, a political theorist, physician, politician and a radical of the French Revolution is afflicted by a debilitating skin condition soothed only by submersion in a bath. His head aflame with the red of revolution, he delivers powerful soliloquies which could have been written in recent months, even days. The delicate ministrations of his nurse Simone Evrard are the tender domain of Christelle Dreyer and she revels in the part. Although she often performs in a wheelchair, she discards her wheels in this play and uses other bodies as climbing structures and as a means of mobility. As she harnesses their physical abilities to service her own requirements we are presented with a different view of what is possible.

Voice of reason?

Kintu is supposedly the voice of reason as Coulmier, the director of the asylum, attempting in vain to convince the audience that such barbarity and inhumane treatment are things of the past. Hollow words that ring with a bitter irony in light of the recent tragic deaths of more than one hundred mentally ill patients following their removal from the Life Esidimeni hospital in Gauteng. It is at the moment when you realise that the doctor himself and the audience are all unhinged, that the empty promise of revolution has made fools of us all, that the play makes the most sense.

Each individual cast member is glorious in their own right and when the ensemble delivers a combined full frontal assault it is a thing of unnerving disquiet and artistic beauty. Laubscher is both conductor and narrator, leading the tempo of the story, guiding your eyes to an area of the stage which you may overlook in your fixation with some equally hypnotic encounter on the opposite side of the stage. Corralling the cast of young actors with the occasional flick of a whip.

Cast members and paint dust in /Marat/Sade'
Andrew Laubscher, Tinarie Van Wyk Loots and Mncedisi Shabangu in ‘Marat/Sade’. Photograph: Oscar O’ Ryan.

A glorious ensemble

Mayekiso’s affinity for dance is evident in the elegance of movement and even in stillness he manages to convey a sense of flight. Septembir’s clowning experience is brought to the fore and if you were looking for a jester of the piece, it would be him. As is often the case there is strong sense of melancholy beneath the surface and he plays the fool, but a fool with a wise ken. Mamabolo continues to impress. Her recent role in The Fall did not take full advantage of her strong vocal ability but here she is given an opportunity to test her mettle both in individual songs and the more rousing chorus numbers.

Tinarie van Wyk Loots is the crazed (although who isn’t) Charlotte Corday. Slipping in and out of a state of slumber induced by her narcolepsy she seems to be everywhere and yet distant. She best embodies the conceit of an actor playing the role of an aristocrat playing the role of an actor. and conveys the same fragility and tenuous grasp of reality that she displayed in Nicola Hanekom’s exceptional In Glas. Her vulnerability as the Angel of Assassination is both physical and mental and as she falls victim to Duperret’s violent assaults, she embodies the pain of countless women, dismissed as mere objects .

Mantsai is the hyper-sexualised rapist Duperret. Clad in the garments of the court he is a rapacious sexual predator and no one is safe from him. The obsessive nature of his sexualised behaviour is repulsive and gives another meaning to the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns.” Although physically constrained in a strait jacket Richard September’s criticism of the state is delivered without restraint and his energetic call to arms is enough to rouse the most die-hard pacifist.

Marat/Sade design a thing of blank beauty

The design is a thing of blank beauty and the profusion of spilled colour in paint and powder take full advantage of it. Not since Gopala Davies’ spectacular Les Cenci presented at the National Arts Festival, have I seen a set so exquisitely suited to the style and feel of a piece. Artaud’s vision of restoring to theatre “a passionate and convulsive conception of life” and “extreme condensation of scenic elements” is realised with the added thrill of Le Roux’s costumes, each more outlandish than the other. Artaud himself was unafraid to “pay life the price it must be paid,” mirroring Sade’s obsession with the limits of pain and curiosity about death.

The current violence of a rapacious system

This is not an easy or a comfortable production to watch. The discomfort is less as a result of the lewd hyper sexual and subversively violent imagery and more from the realisation of the inevitable and prescient repercussions of power and corruption and the current violence of a careless and rapacious system.

Bouwer joins the ranks of illustrious directors such as Peter Brook, Konrad Swinarski, Ingmar Berman and Roger Planchon who have directed the play and he does so admirably. Its immersive allure is in the perfect marriage between contemporary relevance and age old truth. The canny casting and performances delivered with a conviction and passion which seem to be personally rather than merely professionally motivated give the production a sense of immediacy. Once again, with Marat/Sade, Bouwer has occupied and transformed the interior of both the Flipside and my mind.

What: Marat/Sade

Where and when: Flipside Theatre, Baxter Theatre Centre until 25 March 2017.  Age restriction of 16

Book: Computicket

WS