Taking over the asylum

JACK Gow is a very physical actor who likes to be on the move. So his latest role, in the play commonly known as the Marat/Sade, is a considerable challenge.

He spends the entire 100 minutes sitting in a bath.

As he notes, it is very different from his last role as the title character in an outdoor production of Peter Pan, who climbed up and down trees and often swung into the action.

The full title of the Marat/Sade is 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.

While those 25 words sum up the play’s basic plot, they don’t reveal its style.

The work, by German writer Peter Weiss, combined the epic theatre style of his fellow countryman Bertolt Brecht that made use of songs to comment on the action, with the so-called theatre of cruelty of Frenchman Antonin Artaud that aimed to hurl those watching into the centre of what was going on, thereby forcing them to engage with the performance on an instinctive level.

While this was controversial when the play was first performed in 1963, a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Peter Brook in London the following year made the Marat/Sade a hit. The production won the Tony Award for best new play when it transferred to Broadway the following year.

The Marat/Sade is being staged by the Regional Institute of Performing Arts, the new name for Hunter TAFE’s performance classes, at Newcastle’s Civic Playhouse from November 29 to December 2.

The production will include 21 first-year acting students, under the direction of David Brown.

The play, based on actual historical events, is set in a French asylum for mental patients in 1808, where the asylum director allows the patients to perform plays as part of their therapy.

The notorious Marquis de Sade, one of the inmates, directs a play about the stabbing murder in 1793 of French Revolution hero Jean-Paul Marat as he sat in his bath. 

De Sade, a nobleman who benefited from the revolution, sees the radical Marat as a villain and his murderer, Charlotte Corday, as a heroine. But his fellow inmates don’t agree with that as the performance progresses, disrupting the action to express their own views.

While the play is at times confronting, the combination of elements makes it entertaining. There is a lot of humour in the dialogue and the songs, with music by Richard Peaslee that was composed for the Brook production, are catchy. Singers of the day included them on their albums.

Jack Gow is cast as the patient playing Marat, with Mitchell Bourke as his opponent, De Sade. Carmen Ormeno is Charlotte Corday and Stephanie Cunliffe-Jones is the well-meaning asylum director.

The other characters include three heralds, two of whom are drummers, with the always-on-stage ensemble cast as the inmates delivering the show’s songs and dances.

Bourke said there was strong drama in two determined men, De Sade and Marat, fighting for their beliefs, with De Sade seeing individuals as the people who change history, but Marat putting forward the view that change is made through a collective effort.

However, Rachel Davies, who is one of the singers, said the show was often surprisingly light-hearted.

Tara Gallop-Brennan, who is the central herald, said the Marat/Sade was certainly a challenge for the actors, but also a lot of fun, and the cast would make it an enjoyable experience for audiences.

The Marat/Sade can be seen at the Civic Playhouse nightly from Thursday, November 29, to Saturday, December 1, at 7.30pm, plus a 2pm Saturday matinee and a 5pm show on Sunday, December 2. Tickets: $22, concession $18. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 49291977. 

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