Marat/Sade was something of a succès de scandale when it was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company back in the 1960s. It is clear that director Anthony Neilson has sought to deliver another provocative version of the piece as part of the 50th anniversary season in Stratford.
In the decades since Peter Brook first directed Peter Weiss’ play, audiences have become harder to shock. We have been exposed to more intense and explicit ideas and imagery and so it is much tougher to elicit a powerful reaction from jaded theatregoers. Neilson has clearly tried his hardest.
There are so many ideas bouncing around the production, so many attempts to shock, so many opportunities taken to be outrageous that the moments that are really powerful are lost in a whirlpool of excess. Nothing we see on stage is that dangerous or ground-breaking and so it almost feels predictable.
I can see the logic by updating the play so explicitly to a contemporary setting, however this results in the universality of the central themes becoming trivialised. Initially the use of mobile phones to take photographs and to control the action is an interesting concept but the device ends up being over-used and consequently undermines the idea.
There are some genuinely outstanding elements to the production. The use of projection in the final sequence of the first act is brilliant and truly disturbing and some of the depictions of torture are suitably wince-inducing.
Enormous praise must go to the cast all of whom fully commit to the physicality and power of their characters. Central to the production is the audacious portrayal of M. de Sade by Jasper Britton. A mesmerising and ever-changing creation, he is always engaging and believable.
I also much enjoyed the bold interpretation of the Herald by Lisa Hammond. It is hard to believe that the role was created by Ian Richardson so complete is her re-imagining of the part. There are many memorable moments from the ensemble of inmates but the one who stands out most is Oliver Rix. He confirms the promise shown in Cardenio with a very understated and moving performance.
But overall it's an unsatisfying evening of theatre saved only by some outstanding performances.