Stage

Marat/Sade: Chaotic and Captivating

Credit: Catriona Bolt

Barricade Arts’ second production of the term, Marat/Sade, transforms the Keble O’Reilly into the Charenton Asylum, in which the inmates perform the death of Jean Paul Marat under the direction of Madame Marquis de Sade. Combining clowning with song and philosophical discussion on nature and death, this production is dynamic and gripping.

As a play within a play, the whole cast essentially have to take on two roles: an inmate, and an inmate in performance. Set in the Chareton Asylum, I was initially worried that the portrayal of mental illnesses could become caricatured but it is testament to the strength of the cast that this was not the case. Both Emily Albery and Amelia Coen were especially sensitive in their subtle, understated style. Joseph Stephenson was equally impressive in his passionate, emotional portrayal of the tortured Marat. In such a fast paced, heightened play, Elizabeth Mobed’s cold calculating performance as Sade gave a striking contrast. Placing Sade’s controlled manner alongside Marat’s intensity and the explosive energy of the inmates meant the piece moved between rapidity and more measured moments. These strong choices by director Marcus Knight-Adams ensured the production overall was very well paced and consequently gripping.

One of the main strengths of this production was its use of clowning. The actors’ movements were very carefully crafted to create almost hypnotic physical sequences: the stylized giving of coins was a magnetic touch. Bethany Evans and Matt Roberts both shone here, combining a rapid pace with pivotal, controlled movements very effectively. The ensemble work was also very impressive and it is clear that director Marcus Knight-Adams has worked very hard along side his cast to create a whirlwind of controlled chaos. At times, I thought this went a little too far: the laughs and scuffles of the ensemble during the speeches of Sade or Marat had a tendency to become distracting. Given that it was not an easy plot to follow, I thought the production could have benefited from more quiet moments to allow the narrative more space within the chaotic atmosphere. That said, this hectic nature was part of its charm. The cast had an electric energy, and given that they stay on stage for the whole show I fully commend their sustained, unwavering commitment and stamina.

Combining clowning with song and philosophical discussion on nature and death, this production is dynamic and gripping.

Marcus Knight-Adams’ decision to place stylized elements in opposition to moments of raw violence gave chilling nuances to the production. Most striking was the use of a cabbage as the head of the executed King, which prompted unsettled, nervous laughter. Yet this made the realistic scenes of violence all the more distressing. In a scene where Sade talks of the bloody revolution whilst being whipped by one of the inmates, her words are combined only with the sound of lashings. Free of the laughter and giggles of the inmates demolishing a cabbage, this created a powerful moment that really resonated in a play full of constant movement.

Staging caused a few issues. Whilst I liked the way the space of the O’Reilly theatre had been used, I couldn’t help but feel like the show wanted to be performed end-on. The placing of a raised bathtub upstage centre caused problems with sight lines and constricted some of the ensemble pieces to a smaller area of the stage. Unfortunately, this meant that much of the action was directed to one side of the audience. The set, though, was impressive. Metal bars, set against long draping curtains gave a sense of claustrophobia. I particularly liked the way set was used to create sound: a chain being struck against the prison bars to give the sound of a guillotine made the violence much more shocking and imposing. The live band ought to be commended too – Alex Butt’s musical direction provided a perfect soundscape for the play. At times unsettlingly upbeat and at others eerie, this live music made the production effectively claustrophobic. The casts’ vocals were also strong, and Emily Albery in particular sung beautifully.

Overall, Marat/Sade was an impressively cohesive, complicated show that was both funny and disconcerting. Although it was a little let down by the staging, the energy and pacing of the performance was captivating. I look forward to seeing what Barricade Arts do next.

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