I was expecting a challenging evening as the opening night audience trooped down into the O'Reilly basement. And so it turned out, but for unexpected reasons. A gaggle of merry andrews were capering and cackling by the scaffolding that represented the Charenton asylum bars, as I looked cautiously for a seat. In the RSC's 2011 production, among other outrages a dwarf performed a sex act - mercifully unspecified - on a bishop. Seeing no one in a dog collar, I relaxed. Before us, the bandaged head of revolutionary demagogue J-P Marat was already poking out of a Victorian enamel bath set on a pallet which in turn stood on a scrawl-daubed pine dais.
The full title of the Peter Weiss' 1963 drama, 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, sums it up, though in what sense Marat, a powerful fanatic, was persecuted escapes me. Nor did the Marquis – or rather Madame, in this gender-blind casting – de Sade seem to do much in the way of directing. The seven inmates (assassin Charlotte Corday doubling up as the seventh of them) for much of the 80 mins running time ran, jumped, shuffled and danced about in off-white baggy pyjamas as they acted out the events, such as they were, preceding Marat's demise. The physical movement of our inmates was cunningly deployed by director Marcus Knight-Adams (no choreographer is credited), and their lines were predominantly in the form of rhyming couplets, as they fulfil something of the function of a Greek chorus; though were one to be picky, the word doggerel might spring to mind.
The at times manic physicality began to pall a little by halfway since there is little progression of narrative or action in the script. The asylum superintendent Coulmier made the odd brief intervention as he tried to keep the subject matter of the play-within-the-play non-controversial, but he turned out to be a peripheral figure, and Finlay Stroud, whom I know to be a versatile actor, had little to do other than stand about in knee breeches and buckled shoes. When Mme de Sade (Elizabeth Mobed) joined the action, she too turned out to be a surprisingly passive player. This was no monster of depravity, dishing out and taking with gusto the pain and suffering, but quite a calm, collected theatrical administrator. True, Ms Mobed underwent a token whipping by Charlotte Corday, but it left her pretty unmoved, and when she came up with an account of death by torture, her description of it remained matter-of-fact.
J-P Marat was another matter. Here in rust-red pyjamas (a metaphor for the rivers of blood spilled, not omitting his own?) was an archetypal standard-bearer of the Left, boldly intoning that individuals must be sacrificed for the sake of the project, the creation of a paradise of the proletariat, summed up by de Sade as:
"Every death drowns in the total indifference of nature"
He treated his bath as a pulpit for the rhetoric of his slogans, though also hinting it might be a refuge from those aspects of the Revolution he found distasteful. Joseph Stephenson gave this tribune of the people tormented authority and a ringing voice – the stand-out performance of the evening. When the disaffected Charlotte Corday (Emily Albery, also a talented actor but here largely wasted), eventually got round to stabbing Marat after what seemed like endless telegraphing and prevarication, the dramatic impact was muted. Director, audience and actors labour under the problem that not only do the latter have to play the character, but they need to play the inmate of a lunatic asylum playing the character. This is a serious challenge for amateurs, and one that this production never really came to grips with. Nor was there much to admire in the anodyne songs, accompanied by a low-key and invisible band.
I'll conclude on a positive note by admiring the production's mis en scène of Marat's death inspired by the famous J-L David painting and also by noting the curtain call was a delight as the inmates, still capering and singing, acknowledged both one another and the audience, for the first time really managing to breach the barriers of time and sanity and madness.