Review: Marat/Sade (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 5 – Nov 5, 2016
Playwright: Peter Weiss (translated by Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell)
Director: Barry French
Cast: Tom Aldous, Kaiya Bartholomew, Andrea Blight, Debra Bryan, Lyn Collingwood, Garreth Cruikshank, Tahlia Hoffman Hayes, Tim De Sousa, Gregory Dias, Patrick Howard, Isaro Kayitesi, Mark Langham, Leilani Loau, Jim McCrudden, Lynn Roise, Emmanuel Said, Irene Sarrinikolaou, Alia Seror-O’Neill, Liam Smith, Peter Talmacs, Annette van Roden, Jacque Vickers
Image by Bob Seary

Theatre review
Originally conceived as a work set inside a psychiatric hospital, director Barry French’s version moves the action to a modern day asylum centre, with characters transposed from the mentally ill to asylum seekers who have gone mad from incarceration. A lot of the production makes good sense, with the play’s concerns and motivations proving to stand the test of time, but the text remains a difficult one half a century after its 1964 premiere.

Fragmented and purposefully incoherent, Marat/Sade is a fiercely anti-capitalist work that challenges how we think of society and art, and was never meant to be an easy one to stomach. It relies on the creation of spectacle and a sense of presence unique to the experience of live theatre, to keep the audience intrigued and captivated. French does well at manufacturing a dynamic stage with powerful imagery, featuring excellent design work by Tom Bannerman (set), Spiros Hristias (lights) and Nicola Block (costumes). Further, the incorporation of a very large cast comprising over 20 actors provides a sumptuous visual majesty, but the calibre of performers are highly inconsistent.

Our attention fades in and out, depending on the quality of acting being showcased, and the general sense of visceral energy stirred by the writing’s violent insanity, is only occasionally authentic and seldom severe enough to fascinate or convince. There are however, memorable personalities in the show, including Jim McCrudden as the Herald who demonstrates exceptional flair and nuance in his charming theatrics, as well as Debra Bryan and Leilani Loau whose committed portrayals of tragic hysteria, deliver some of the play’s richer characterisations.

Also noteworthy is Nate Edmondson’s original music, thoroughly creative, with a welcome exuberance adding texture and depth to the staging. Performed to a backing track, we are struck by the beauty of the score’s arrangement, and are left hankering for an opportunity to hear the songs sung completely live in tandem with musicians.

On the surface, Marat/Sade urges the downtrodden to rise up for a revolution, but what it really does, is facilitate discussion on social injustices that have to be rectified. The play talks about the French Revolution of 1808, but with the passage of time, ideas of radical action seem to have lost their lustre. Many of us at the theatre are the complacent middle class, and shows like this aim to help expand our consciousness to include the lives of those who suffer under our oppression, but doing more than providing lip service seems always to remain a challenge. Stories of asylum seekers who ask for our mercy continue to be told, but how we respond is presently inadequate, if all we can do is talk.