Monday 30 April 2012

Marat/Sade, by Peter Weiss Performed by Akanda Prádelna Bohnice 25-29 April 2012

Waiting for the start of Akanda Theatre’s recent production of ‘Marat/Sade’, I spotted in the theatre lobby the slogan ‘Kde není umění, tam se nic nezmění’ (‘Where there is no art, there can be no change’). Here, in the former laundry of the Bohnice mental asylum, the Prague-based English language theatre company undertook to prove that where there has been no change, there can still be art.

For nothing here has really changed. This vast empty and tiled space, with its high windows, iron balustrades and peeling plaster, has stood in this northern suburb of Prague for a hundred years. And as the backdrop to Peter Weiss’s celebrated play about the assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat ‘as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton’, it is perfect. Still haunted, one senses, by the silent cries of its one-time inhabitants, Bohnice was always bound to be the most appropriate venue for Akanda's latest outing.

The Marquis de Sade was twice incarcerated in Charenton, once in 1789 for causing a disturbance from his prison cell in the Bastille, and again - this time on Napoleon’s orders - from 1803 until his death, for penning a nunber of obsessively explicit gothic novels. It was during this latter period that he was encouraged by the enlightened director of the institute to write and direct plays to be performed by fellow inmates for the benefit of the viewing public.

Although there is no historical evidence of Sade’s having written a play about Marat, Peter Weiss’s imaginative stratagem is to present the relationship of these two ostensibly opposed characters – the libertine aristo and the radical revolutionary - in the form of a theatrical production coordinated both by Sade himself (played here by Jeff Fritz), the choric figure of the Herald (Vanessa Gendron) and a lunatic in the role of Marat (Logan Hillier). Throughout the play-within-the-play, Marat’s soapbox, as it were, is the iconic bathtub in which he will ultimately be stabbed by the Girondiste sympathizer Charlotte Corday (Birianna Spahn).

But the play is much more than a re-telling of French revolutionary politics. As in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’, what is at stake - whether for the prisoner-actors, their ‘keepers’, or their supposedly free audience - is the whole question of the way in which society chooses to treat the sick and mentally infirm. And the answer, as in that slogan I saw in the lobby, is that art has the power to change everything – and nothing. When ‘Waiting for Godot’ was performed in San Quentin jail in 1957, a teacher at the prison knew instinctively that the project would be a success: ‘They [the inmates] know what is meant by waiting’, he said.

Akanda has clearly set great store by the values of previous productions, with dramatic shifts of lighting, abrasive music of the Brecht’n’Weill school from an onstage orchestra of madmen, and skilfuly-choreographed, ritualistic ensemble work. The play is strongly physical, and the influence of Antonin Artaud was most evident not only in the gibbers and grimaces, but also in the grace and stillness of the excellent cast (both on- and off-stage), directed by Melanie Rada. What the production may have lacked in brutality, it more than made up  in incisive verse speaking, a strong sense of pace, and persistent engagement with the 100-strong audience.

Revived after last February’s performance at U medvidku, Marat/Sade was the first instalment of a two–part project conceived by Canadian artist Althea Thauberger. An associated film, including interviews with residents of present-day Bohnice, is due to be screened at the same venue in September 2012.


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