I was very interested in seeing Soup Can Theatre’s performance of Marat/Sade because of the reputation of both the play and the theatre company. Last year at Fringe they produced a play called Love Is a Poverty You Can Sell which was based on the songs of Kurt Weill and I had heard great things about it, but wasn’t able to see it myself so I jumped at the chance to see Marat/Sade.
Marat/Sade is a very well-known and lauded play from the 1960s. It had a distinguished run at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, England and the Broadway production won Tonys. There is also a film adaptation. The show is a play within a play; a representation of the French Revolution, particularly the assassination of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat , as performed by inmates of an insane asylum and directed by the Marquis De Sade.
De Sade actually was a resident of Charenton Asylum and put on plays with the inmates there, so this is really an historical play within an historical play. It sounds wonderfully meta, and wonderfully bloody, both of which appeal to me. Unfortunately both my companion and I had trouble staying engaged with the show.
It’s a Brechtian play, so the alienation effect keeps the audience from being too emotionally involved with the plight of the characters, so as to allow for social/political commentary. In order for this to work, we still have to be interested in the action and want to know what happens next.
The majority of the play tells the story of the French Revolution, which we already know. Even if an audience member isn’t historically knowledgeable enough to know a Jacobin if one bit his or her nose, the events of the revolution were in the program for us to read before the play, and on top of that, the character of the Herald – played delightfully by Kat Letwin – tells us exactly what is about to happen as they begin their re-enactment.
If we can’t be curious about the revolutionary characters we could perhaps be interested in the characters of the inmates who play the revolutionaries. But they don’t have any lines except for those de Sade scripted so we don’t really get to know anything about them. Director Sarah Thorpe definitely tried to give them non-verbal interaction to increase the depth of their characters but it wasn’t enough for me to care about what might happen to them. They all just seemed like generic “crazy people” despite Soup Can’s attempts to “avoid stereotypical and insensitive depictions of the mentally ill.” (This from the promotional material.)
The result felt like long academic speeches by Marat countered by long academic speeches by de Sade. I found it very difficult to pay attention. Luckily these were punctuated by some very rousing musical numbers.
I also think the environmental factors were influencing my level of attention. The air conditioning was not on during the hour-and-a-half long first act. I felt well-rested going into the theatre but a long stretch of time in a dark sweltering room tends to make people nod off, and both my companion and I certainly did. I often enjoy philosophically pondering monologues, so I do suspect the heat compromised my experience of the show.
Obviously other people were similarly affected, and the production team noticed, because the second act began with fewer people in the audience and with the audible hum and the relieving feel of AC.
There was another thing Soup Can tried to do that I found perplexing: they claimed to have modernized the play to be set in a 1950s Montreal psychiatric institute that did horrible things to their patients. But nothing onstage seemed to indicate such a re-setting to me.
The greatest triumph of the production is the music. It expertly treads the dangerous line of bad-on-purpose. The inmates all sing in character, so they are wont to wander off, to start at different times and generally do quirky things with the timing of their singing. The lovely harmonizing and other aspects of the music let us know that this is indeed purposeful and the result is haunting, jarring and beautiful.
Assuming that they keep the AC turned on for as long as the current weather lasts, I recommend this show for anyone interested in cerebral musings on power, control and violence interspersed with surreal musical numbers.
– Showtimes are July 19th to 23rd at 8pm and July 24th at 2pm
– Tickets are $15 for all seats and performances. Available at MaratSade.ca or at the venue box office starting one hour before each performance.
Photos credit: Scarlet O’Neill