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article imageReview: Toronto ‘Marat/Sade’ remount picks spectacle over substance Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Sep 24, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - Overheard during the intermission at the Soulpepper theatre company’s new production of “Marat/Sade” last night: First dude says, “This is totally amazing, huh?” Second dude replies, “Yeah... but it’s also kind of exhausting, isn’t it?”
That honest reaction may express the play’s effect better than any review could. On one level, it’s not often that you get to see a live theatrical remount of German playwright Peter Weiss’ 1963 Brechtian musical these days, even though it’s renowned as something of a landmark. (The full title is actually 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). But this new staging, which opened in Toronto on Tuesday and is helmed by Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz, is so packed with bells and whistles that the point gets lost.
With boldly choreographed numbers, stunning lighting effects, campy humour and an eye-catching set loaded with colourful props and gimmicks, Schultz directs the show as though he’s terrified half to death that the audience may get bored and leave any minute. Yet Weiss’ complex script (translated by Geoffrey Skelton) is so full of strong intellectual ideas and subversive themes that that shouldn’t happen — at least not with the serious, thoughtful theatregoers at which this show should be aiming.
Famously staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company both in the U.K. and on Broadway in the 1960s, with a cast that included Glenda Jackson and Ian Richardson, Marat/Sade is a mind-bending play-within-a-play set in 1808, in which the incarcerated Marquis de Sade (here played by Soulpepper regular Diego Matamoros) stages a drama played by his fellow asylum inmates. Ostensibly, it’s about the murder of French Revolution leader Jean-Paul Marat (a “lucky paranoiac” portrayed by Stuart Hughes) by Charlotte Corday (Katherine Gauthier), and her subsequent execution by beheading, in July 1793.
But that’s just the surface story. De Sade’s play isn’t really about historical reenactment; it’s an opportunity for him to debate with his Marat about philosophical issues and the true legacy of the Revolution.
“Man has given a false importance to death,” says de Sade, stepping into his play’s action. “Death is simply part of the process.” Marat, confined to a full bathtub that splashes real water as it gets wheeled around the stage repeatedly, snaps back: “What you call the indifference of nature is your lack of compassion.” De Sade: “Compassion is the property of the privileged classes.”
Meanwhile, there’s a layer of external suspense as the inmates lose their focus on the play and threaten to break into anarchy every time “liberty” or “freedom” is mentioned in the text. One inmate, Jaques Roux (Frank Cox-O’Connell), is a former priest who keeps attempting to rouse the inmates to rebellion, only to be silenced (and even buzzed with a taser!) before he can go too far.
As aforementioned, Schultz throws out every trick in the book to make Marat/Sade exciting to a jaded modern audience. And to be fair, a lot of it works beautifully. Lorenzo Savoini’s set grabs your attention immediately in how it enmeshes the entire stage area in a large cage, suggesting both the physical danger of the inmates and the repression they face under the asylum’s authority. (An obvious symbol, but an effective one.) Gauthier has a nicely staged number early on, singing about Corday’s arrival in Paris, “What kind of town is this?” as the other inmates lie on the floor and pass fake severed body parts around her. Later on, there’s a powerful, disturbing scene in which the masochistic de Sade orders Corday to whip him with a wet towel as he recounts how he became disillusioned with the Revolution. If parts are meant to count as much as the whole, it’s worth noting that this play has some terrific parts.
But a crucial ingredient that’s missing from this version is the underlying tension — the worry that the inmates will lose control and start their own violent revolution. Peter Brook’s acclaimed 1967 film adaptation maintains this feeling consistently with its intense performances, but in Schultz’ production, it comes out only in fits and spurts in between big musical numbers. Ironically, one distraction is the inmates themselves, whose mental afflictions are portrayed comically rather than realistically or frighteningly; sometimes it feels more like a musical version of the movie of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even Duperret’s (Gregory Prest) attempted sexual assaults on Corday are played for laughs.
Another of Schultz’ missteps is to replace the original Richard Peaslee music with a new score by Mike Ross, even while keeping most of the original lyrics. (You also get treated to “O Canada” and the Beatles’ “Good Night”, for no apparent reason.) Not to disparage Ross’ music — some of it is, in fact, very good — but the tone is crazily inconsistent. One minute it’s a wild punk-rock concert, the next it’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical, and then it’s Randy Newman. As with Canadian Stage’s 2012 production of The Arsonists, the anachronistic approach to the music harms the whole.
While the performances are generally fine, it’s strange how none of them really stands out. I’ve always admired Matamoros as an actor — I loved his George in Soulpepper’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2009, and he was also excellent in Oleanna in 2011 — but his de Sade doesn’t convey as much authoritative confidence as you’d expect. Hughes, who has also done good work for Soulpepper before (The Crucible, Twelve Angry Men), seems to be on autopilot some of the time, although it doesn’t help much that he’s stuck in a bathtub. Gauthier, whose inmate character has sleeping sickness, speaks some of her Corday lines with a wooden quality that I assume — I hope — reflects her character’s amateurish acting level, not her own.
In his director’s notes, Schultz describes Marat/Sade as “a child of the ’60s.” He may be right — the song refrain “What’s the point of a revolution / Without general copulation?” with all the inmates simulating intercourse is ample evidence — but that doesn’t mean it has nothing relevant to say to a 2015 audience. If only Schultz had enough faith in the play’s content to let it speak for itself, we’d know for sure what it says today. Instead, it’s an entertaining (and, yes, exhausting) show that feels like a wasted opportunity.
Marat/Sade runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until October 17.
More about soulpepper, Theatre, peter weiss, Musical, Marquis de Sade
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