Transforming the respectable, well-carpeted Christ Church TV room into a post-French Revolution mental asylum is no easy task. Nevertheless, the cast of Marat/Sade, in the three intense scenes they showcased for me, achieved it to perfection. Featuring a chorus of clownish maniacs, the play is a disillusioned search for meaning in the ashen remains of a bloody revolution.
In the opening scene, we meet the ‘afflicted souls’ of the asylum, hissing, crawling, and finally bursting into a fierce song spiced with bone-chilling howls. The movement is that of a carefully controlled chaos, and the chorus’ raw energy is channeled into an innovative physical style. As Marat (Joe Stephenson) reclines in the center, the frantic orbit of the chorus intensifies the eerie calm of the silent Marat, whom the chorus finally hoists onto their shoulders and march about triumphantly. As director Marcus Knight-Adams tells me, the chorus is a ‘small army of mischievous clowns’, inspired by an intensive workshop with the renowned professional clown Luke Rollason. Integration of the clownish movements to the play indeed adds interesting layers.
This stylistic emphasis was dazzlingly apparent in the next scene I watched. Sade (Elizabeth Mobed) and Marat engage in a philosophical dialogue on Nature, death, and the revolution. Sade is coldly observant, while Marat’s delivery is impassioned and indignant. The writing is vivid and thought-provoking throughout, and the belligerent sexual tension between the two characters was grippingly sustained. The particularly memorable moment was when the chorus ran to the fore bearing a soaked ball of lettuce (representing the beheaded king). A sanguine execution ensues. The verdant explosion of the lettuce is graphically and festively violent, the clownish movements of the chorus creating a nuance of the macabre fun.
Chilling, intense, and delightfully disturbing, the play promises to be deeply unforgettable.
The last scene I saw was possibly the most shocking. Sade calmly walks to the fore, faces the audience, then strips her jacket. “Let her beat me while I talk to you about the Revolution,” she declares, then paints a lurid picture of the blood-splattered revolution gone wrong through gritted teeth. Between the lashes of the whip, Sade talks the audience through the failed ideologies and the increasing dominance of the bloodlust post-French Revolution. The auditory impact of the whipping, complete with Sade’s quickening breaths and the chorus tearfully cowering in the back, creates an intensely powerful moment of utter immersion.
Talking to the cast provided further insights into how unique this production is in the Oxford drama scene. ‘It’s just a kind of theatre you don’t see much here’, the cast explains. It has a lot of music (and very catchy, too) without being a musical. It explores an experimental physical style. The narrative itself is fascinating for its meta-literary approach, as the entire play is about a show that the deranged inmates put together. The audience unwillingly plays a role of the post-revolution bourgeois looking for a spectacle. Hence, the show promises to be refreshingly nuanced and viscerally sensory at the same time.
‘Sade/Marat’ is certainly a show with a lot going on. Chilling, intense, and delightfully disturbing, the play promises to be deeply unforgettable. If you appreciate farcical dark humor, enjoy experiments in physical theatre, or simply has a liking for the tastefully gruesome, get your tickets now.