Marat/Sade is an ambitious play set in an asylum in early 19th century post-revolutionary France dabbling in the themes and philosophies of two of the most noted men from that time. Jean-Paul Marat and the Marquis de Sade.
Should you see it?
Have you ever gone to see a play put on by elementary school kids? If so, you know that when you do, you’re not going to see a play so much as you are going to see children put on a play. That is, kids do as kids do and maybe you get some semblance of a play in there. Marat/Sade is like that, only swapping children with inmates of the Charenton Asylum. That the inmates themselves are played by actors in what is predominantly a play within a play is the real beauty and challenge of this piece. Actors playing asylum inmates playing characters in a play about post-revolutionary France. Which gives you the exceptionally long and perfectly apt full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.
To set the stage: Asylum director Abbé de Coulmier believes that therapy (generally: art therapy) and not the harsh treatments typical of the late 18th century is the best way to improve the well being of his patients. As such, he has the asylum’s most famous inmate, the Marquis de Sade, to direct his fellow inmates in plays for public performance. Coulmier tells us this before we enter the theatre proper, establishing us as his public audience in France in July 1808. This particular play concerns the rapidly increasing violence and terror in France post-revolution and one of the most noted men of that time.
To start with that play within the play: Marat was a widely renowned writer who held a harsh view of France’s new leadership and was vocal in his conviction that very little had yet changed for society’s most poor. We’re introduced to Marat and his philosophies as well as to Charlotte Corday, his soon-to-be assassin. It’s a historical retelling — these events actually happened — but it’s very distracting as told by the inmates of Charenton so don’t go in expecting a useful history lesson.
The trouble is that there’s just so much going on on stage – the cast numbers 31 – it’s easy to miss parts of the action and miss details in the narrative.
Of course, since the real crux of Marat/Sade is in its themes of the oppression of the marginalized, how easily crowds can turn into unruly (and violent) mobs, and how an idea such as a revolution (or a play about one) can become so big as to be uncontrollable, it works perfectly. Its the concept of barely controlled chaos and of the inmates running the asylum that is the point here.
Marat/Sade is a play about thoughts and feelings more than about the narrative or any character’s journey. It’s about the sight and the spectacle and the everything of all the pieces playing out in front of you. And here in this production by uOttawa’s department of theatre, under the direction of MFA candidate, James Richardson, it is expertly accomplished.
The ensemble as a whole is fairly exceptional, all continuing to act their roles in the “wings” of the asylum stage when not part of the main action and filling the stage in the larger set pieces. While it’s impossible to highlight anybody in particular, it’s easy to sustain belief in the lot, especially the inmates with their varied tics and personalities. There’s always something to draw your attention.
Of note among the main cast is Jérémie Cyr-Cooke (Marat) who boasts the unenviable task of playing Marat’s debilitating skin condition, constantly scratching and spending most of the play in a bath tub. Through much of the action, he’s almost scenery, but in his big moments he manages a powerful enough performance to successfully command all attention to him — no easy feat with everything happening around him. Then there’s Annick Welsh, playing the one-armed Herald, speaking in rhyming verse to explain away the more complicated and controversial aspects of the play. She bounds across the stage with endless zest while still managing to hide a hint of the play’s pervasive violence in her eyes. She’ll be one to watch in the future.
And did I mention it was a musical? While several numbers use the whole ensemble, most are performed by the dedicated inmate quartet – of which Taylor Efford’s voice is particularly strong.
I’ve far-exceeded typical word count here but there was a lot to say. Marat/Sade is very much the kind of theatre that is far between in Ottawa. Ambitious, challenging, well executed, full of spectacle and ever-engaging. There are three shows left (as of publish) so do yourself the favour of trying to get out to see it. You may even see me back there.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you thought. Was there too much going on or was there elegance in the chaos? What stood out for you? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.
Marat/Sade runs until Saturday at Academic Hall at the University of Ottawa. Details: onstageottawa.com/shows/maratsade