“Even while expecting an hour of postmodernist drama, I couldn’t have been more unprepared”

Katie Sayer recovers from the gripping and disturbing 'Marat/Sade' at the Keble O'Reilly

Credit: Catriona Bolt

I entered the Keble O’ Reilly theatre on a rainy Friday night, looking forward to an evening of ‘experimental’ student theatre, perhaps along the lines of recent Oscar Wilde short story adaptation The Nightingale and the Rose, or OUCD’s avant garde dance piece Illuminated.

Even while expecting a cheerful hour or so of postmodernist drama, perhaps followed by a pint and a discussion about how ‘experimental’ it was, I could not have been more unprepared for the gripping and bold production that was awaiting me. Perhaps I should have googled the plot of Marat/Sade before arriving, or perhaps I should have known from the fact that the production team was Barricade Arts, whose most recent projects included A Clockwork Orange and Fear, that cheerfulness was definitively off the agenda. Certainly, the trigger warnings for murder, suicide, severe mental health issues and depression alerted me to the fallacy of my jovial expectations.

Marat/Sade depicts a group of inmates at the historical Charenton Asylum acting out a play about the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, directed by the Marquis de Sade. Although set in 1808, the majority of the narrative comprises the play within a play, harking back to the height of the French Revolution in July, 1793. Although the premise seems grounded in history, really the focus of the production is the inmates who are acting out the drama, and their strained relationship with the figures of authority who govern their incarceration—Coulmier, the bourgeois director of the hospital, and the Marquis de Sade, both of whom occasionally interrupt the play within a play to bring us abruptly back to the world of 1808 and the sad, distorted reality inhabited by the inmates of the asylum.

The script certainly offers a lot to work with, and director Marcus Knight-Adams skilfully crafts together the Brechtian aspects of the play with an experimental staging that enhances the alienation effect—the inmates of the asylum interact with audience members as they try to find their seats before the play begins, and over the course of the final scene an entire lettuce is torn apart and thrown at the spectators; I can attest to having been a personal victim of this creative decision.

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To say that Marat/Sade is intriguing is to do it an injustice – every aspect of the production is exceptional. Many of the technical aspects especially stand out, particularly the eerie set design (the focal point of which is a raised bath tub in the middle of the stage), the use of an extremely skilled live orchestra (who provide a dulcet accompaniment to the sombre action), and the thoughtful costume design (with characters like Coulmier donning an authentic 18th century style while the inmates are dressed solely in white pyjamas). The cast are also phenomenal; as well as the immensity of the physical theatre they perform, they are also all very talented singers, and the momentum of the performance proffers an intensity that makes the 80-minute production seem far longer.

Overall, Marat/Sade is a stimulating, thoughtful and provocative piece of theatre that is well worth the trek to the Keble O’Reilly. The cast and crew are both excellent, and the immersive nature of the piece means audience members are engaged throughout in an intense yet fulfilling performance that stays with you long after you leave the auditorium. My only sympathies lie with the stage manager, Chris Goring—good luck picking up all that lettuce.