Last night I watched the opening of Soup Can Theatre’s new production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, or to use its full title 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.
It’s been almost a half a century since Peter Weiss created Marat/Sade. I’ve been watching deconstruction on the stage for such a long time – in texts, in mise-en-scène, in everything one can deconstruct—that I feel some sadness seeing the play now. Its Brechtian edginess has no real targets, at least not like the early 1960s, when its messages hit ready ears. The play reads differently now, preaching to a largely converted audience who would agree with its premises about war, revolution, religion or sexual repression. Even so the idea is compelling, as we watch asylum inmates perform famous persons, while we may wonder whether the supposedly sane ones running the place are really any different.
Soup Can Theatre used the Peaslee score that is vaguely familiar (including at least one famous song), employing a small onstage band dressed as asylum inmates. This is not Sondheim, even if the edgy politics and in-your-face delivery may at times remind one of Assassins. The wonderful thing about this score, especially as the Soup Can cast observed, is the way it allows for songs that break into the action, without inflicting voices on you that are obviously the trained voices of a stage musical. No I don’t mean that they’re bad; quite the opposite. The singing is very under-stated, and so unobtrusive even in the loud numbers that one’s connection with the onstage reality – of a presentation from asylum inmates—is not lost. It’s very sad when a musical makes the mistake of making the music sound so good as to disconnect you from the story. Soup Can tread the line wonderfully well of never letting the music subvert the mad asylum world.
The program explained that we were witnessing an adaptation of the play in a quasi-modern setting, namely the Montreal of the 1950s, when electro-shock therapy was employed. I am not one to object to modernization, and indeed, felt that this production worked well in its new guise. But it should be noted that while we see an asylum from the 1950s, we are still listening to a text pre-supposing the original setting of 1808 (eg in the big song near the end “Fifteen Glorious Years”); but perhaps that’s a leap that director Sarah Thorpe did not want to make.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, even if I was watching a cast that were in my opinion a little on the young side for this work. Maybe my age is showing? I felt that the play’s ongoing debate between De Sade and Marat was somewhat one-sided. While Liam Morris has a charming delivery(and yes he’s a dead ringer for the Marat we see in David’s famous painting), was overmatched alongside the powerful Allan Michael Brunet in his portrayal of the Marquis, admittedly a role where one wants to see some star power. Brunet’s performance was especially ironic, in his ability to position himself –the most subversive character on view–as the moral centre of the work, due to the gravitas he displayed, particularly in the last part of the play.
I found Heather Marie Annis was a successful Charlotte, both in her wonderful singing and in a very believable madness, the most under-stated performance on the stage. The other rock-solid performance came from Scott Moore as Coulmier, the headman in white coat. Moore’s demeanour as the officious shrink offering this performance for us, the ostensible visitors to the asylum, was creepy in a Ned Flanders kind of way, a bureaucrat whose niceness points to the banality at the end of the world.
Soup Can Theatre’s Marat/Sade continues at the Alumnae Theatre Mainspace evenings until July 23rd, with a matinee on the 24th.