The cast of Marat/Sade or The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Photo by Scarlet O’Neill.
There are some theatre-goers who like to read the programs for the play they’re about to watch, and there are others who don’t. Soup Can Theatre’s production of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, or Marat/Sade for short, is definitely an instance that requires thumbing through the director and dramaturg notes before the curtains go up.
Marat/Sade is a play-within-a-play, written by Peter Weiss in the 1960s, that pits two legendary French revolutionary icons—Jean-Paul Marat and the Marquis de Sade—against each other in a battle of wits to decide what is best for their Motherland and fellow citizens. Marat is a vocal critic of the aristocracy, de Sade a critic of the Revolution. Did we mention that their fellow citizens are a group of patients in an asylum?
Weiss’s script tells the story of Marat’s murder by Charlotte Corday from the perspective of de Sade, who has written a staged interpretation of Marat’s death to be performed by his fellow inmates at the Charenton Asylum in France (where de Sade was incarcerated for 13 years), in front of the asylum’s director, Courmier, and an audience of French aristocrats. Soup Can’s production, under the helm of artistic director Sarah Thorpe, adds an extra layer by switching the location from Charenton to McGill University’s Psychiatry Department in 1957, when Donald Ewan Cameron was performing shock therapy and other torturous experiments on patients who had only mild psychological complaints. Unfortunately, while there is a program, audience members aren’t provided with an Encyclopedia of Canadian Cold War History. And at the risk of sounding completely dimwitted, we could have used one.
Thematically speaking, the comparison between the French Revolution and Dr. Cameron’s experiments draws some interesting connections—while the people of France were tearing down their hierarchical systems of class and government to build a new society from scratch, Cameron was tearing down minds to rebuild people. From de Sade’s stance (which was usually a seat off to the side to better watch the unfolding action), Marat would have been in support of Cameron’s soulless use of violence to achieve a greater end that would, apparently, improve the world. His play instead acts as a tool to incite fury inside his prisoner pals to the point (spoiler alert) that when the final blow falls upon Marat, the inmates are likewise compelled to rebel against their medical manipulators.
In theory, the parallels between these two points in time are clear. But, in practice, certain stylistic choices make them hazy. If the play-within-a-play is set at McGill instead of Charenton, why are the nurses wearing Charenton scrubs? Why is Courmier overseeing the production instead of Cameron himself? How is de Sade orchestrating the inmates’ protest in the 1950s when he died in 1814? Or is it another of Cameron’s victims who’s impersonating the 18th-century writer?
There are plenty of really enjoyable aspects to this show, however. The set of blood-stained white tile has a nice House on Haunted Hill effect, and by nice we mean nightmarish. Performances by Kat Letwin as The Herald and Heather Marie Annis (in a surprising departure from her Morro and Jasp clown duo) as Charlotte Corday are both delightfully unhinged, mad yet sympathetic. Annis especially does an impressive job taking blank stares, twitchy fingers, and distracted stutters and using them to portray the patient’s painful history, which is never explained but felt through and through. A chorus of singers beautifully narrates the action along with a live band (also dressed in sterile whites, tousled hair, and baggy eyes), while the entire ensemble completes the picture by never losing their lunacy while the action draws the audience’s attention elsewhere.
Marat/Sade is a powerful play with the potential to cause sleepless nights. While aesthetically, Soup Can’s world had our fists clenched in suspense, the mixed direction had our brains wracked by confusion.