As the audience enters the O’Reilly, a gaggle of excitable inmates comes rushing towards them, bursting with energy. It is this fearless intensity which makes Marcus Knight Adams’ production of Marat/Sade so engaging; carefully coordinated physicality and eerie harmonies plunge us into a disorienting world of meta-theatre, in which the inmates of the Charenton Asylum act out the assassination of Jean Paul Marat fifteen years after the event.
Throughout the play, we see that the inmate portraying Marat has thrown himself so fully into the role that he is now unable to distinguish himself from the revolutionary, and so the play within a play becomes one at his expense. This concept is confusing, and it must be said that where this production occasionally falters is in its lack of narrative clarity, which is perhaps compromised to enable its fast pace. Nevertheless, Joseph Stephenson’s unwaveringly intense portrayal of Marat, cowering in a bathtub centre stage for the majority of the production, is remarkable, and contrasts brilliantly to the calm and piercing energy of Elizabeth Mobed, the controlling Madame Marquis de Sade.
If this world is somewhat disorienting, this arguably only goes to reflect the state of moral chaos in France both during and after the revolution. Debates surrounding the legitimacy of violence and the role of the individual are played out through Marat and Sade with no possibility of ever being answered. The attempts of the asylum’s bourgeois governor, Coulmier (Finlay Stroud), to advance Bonaparte as a figure of liberty are constantly undermined by his inmates, who sardonically quip in song that there may be ‘a shortage of wheat, but we’re too happy to eat.’
The childish appearance and innocent expressions of the inmates are made all the more unsettling by their messily painted clown makeup, and contrast sharply to the chilling vocals they produce as they taunt the agitated Marat and audience with increasing vigour. Indeed, it is in these carefully choreographed moments that the play most brilliantly comes to life; the pattering feet and pounding fists of the chorus as they dart across the space creates a sense of intense claustrophobia and suspense which crescendoes as the play progresses. In one particularly disconcerting moment, they take turns to act out the brutal execution faced by thousands at the hands of the guillotine, displaying huge grins as they do so.
Overall, this production of Marat/Sade succeeds in being both alarming and entertaining. From beckoning the audience into the theatre up to the powerful finale, the whole cast work together to ensure that our attention never wavers. This is not one to miss – but maybe brush up quickly on your A-level history first.