You Say You Want a Revolution?
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You Say You Want a Revolution?

Soulpepper Theatre has bloody good fun with a modern, musical take on the 1960s classic Marat/Sade.

Stuart Hughes, centre, portrays French revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat in Soulpepper Theatre's revival of Marat/Sade  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Stuart Hughes, centre, portrays French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat in Soulpepper Theatre’s revival of Marat/Sade. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Runs to Oct. 17
$29.50 – $94
stars 3andahalf9

Welcome to Marat/Sade: The Musical. Following on the heels of last season’s hit production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Soulpepper Theatre has boldly re-imagined another European classic, this time German playwright Peter Weiss’s seminal, savage historical satire Marat/Sade. Director Albert Schultz and composer Mike Ross—the men who gave us the singing graveyard of Spoon River—have taken Weiss’s verse play with songs and turned it into a full-blown piece of contemporary musical theatre. At the same time, Schultz has cheekily skewed its recounting of the French Revolution to speak to a Canadian audience in an election year.

It’s a wickedly entertaining production, with Schultz exercising the creativity he showed in Soulpepper’s recent stagings of The Dybbuk, Of Human Bondage, and Angels in America. But those who know Weiss’s drama—most famous for Peter Brook’s 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which was turned into a 1967 film—will find it lacks the dangerous, disturbing qualities of the original.

The play’s notorious full title is 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. In the last years of his life, Sade, the iconoclastic French pornographer and philosopher (and the man who gave his name to “sadism”), was confined to the progressive Charenton asylum, where he was allowed to write and direct plays for his fellow inmates to perform. Weiss imagines Sade presenting such a show in 1808 before the asylum director and his family, in which a company of unruly lunatics depict the 1793 murder of the French revolutionary leader Marat.

For Soulpepper’s version, Schultz has added a further layer to this play-within-a-play: now Weiss’s work is being performed by actors playing present-day convicts from Kingston’s Collins Bay Institution, who are presumably playing the Charenton inmates who, in turn, enact Sade’s script. Or so one gathers—the conceit isn’t entirely clear. Not that it matters much once things get going: Schultz has left untouched the bulk of Weiss’s text—using the standard Geoffrey Skelton translation, with the verse adapted into English by poet Adrian Mitchell—so that its central story and arguments remain at the forefront.

In Lorenzo Savoini’s grim design, the entire stage of Soulpepper’s Baillie Theatre is enclosed in a metal cage. Downstage, in his bathtub, sits Marat (Stuart Hughes), seeking relief from an agonizing skin disease but still furiously writing his political tracts. Surrounding him is the restless mob, demanding the change promised by the revolution. And upstage, perched on his elevated director’s chair, is Sade (Diego Matamoros), coolly indifferent as he oversees the playing-out of Marat’s final days.

There is black comedy in the casting of inmates with various afflictions. The young woman playing Marat’s knife-wielding assassin, Charlotte Corday (Katherine Gauthier), is a glum narcoleptic prone to falling asleep in the middle of her speeches—much to the irritation of the show’s herald and assistant director (Oliver Dennis). Corday’s lover, Duperret (Gregory Prest), is a sex addict who has to be restrained from groping her. The psychotic who portrays the firebrand priest Jacques Roux (Frank Cox-O’Connell) takes his rabble-rousing role to heart and also has to be restrained—at one point, with a guard’s Taser.

Then there is subversion: defying the censorious warden (C. David Johnson), Sade has used his history pageant to address Marat directly and challenge the French Revolution’s Enlightenment ideals with his own bleak, nihilistic view of humanity. His descriptions of the human capacity for viciousness, whether under a monarchy (the gruelling torture of Louis XV’s would-be assassin Damiens) or a republic (the gory ritual of the guillotine), are among the play’s most horrific passages. At one memorable point, Sade strips down and has the Corday actress whip him as he speaks; in Schultz’s conception, Gauthier’s Charlotte gives the marquis a brutal lashing with one of Marat’s wet bath towels.

There is also a troubling scene in which a priest (Colin Palangio) half-drowns a young man (Peter Fernandes) in Marat’s tub—part baptism, part torture, it elicited gasps from the audience on Tuesday’s opening night. It’s a reminder that the play we’re seeing here is one of the most famous examples of what Antonin Artaud called the Theatre of Cruelty. But Schultz doesn’t take the shock tactics as far as the RSC did a few years ago with its over-the-top revival. Just when things get ugly, they switch back to being witty and raucous—and at times, too comical—thanks to Ross’s orgy of musical numbers.

The Marquis de Sade (Diego Matamoros, in chair) expounds his philosophy while Marat (Stuart Hughes, in bathtub) listens, in a scene from Marat/Sade  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Marquis de Sade (Diego Matamoros, in chair) expounds his philosophy while Marat (Stuart Hughes, in bathtub) listens, in a scene from Marat/Sade. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Taking advantage of the updating, Ross gives the play’s songs a wide range of musical settings, from cabaret to metal, from Les Misérables-style anthems to a blast of Sex Pistols-era punk, complete with pogo dancing. There’s even a rendition of the Beatles’ “Good Night.” The chorus of multi-talented inmates accompany themselves on piano, percussion, and electric guitars—one (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) even does elegant solos on the flute. Corday and Duperret, meanwhile, favour us with duets, including a spoof pop ballad staged like a cheesy music video that’s very funny but totally at variance with the tone of the play.

Indeed, while Marat/Sade‘s tension is meant to come from the threat that the over-excited inmates will lose control, the greater fear here is that Schultz’s direction will go off the rails into crowd-pleasing shtick. And there are a few times when it does; but it’s pulled back on track by the dramatic exchanges between Marat and Sade. Hughes’s Marat, twitching and tormented in his revolving tub, appears engaged in a feverish battle against time—he seems to already know that he’s doomed. Matamoros’s white-faced Sade, looking like Geoffrey Rush’s version in Quills (the real Sade at Charenton was obese and slovenly), displays an aristocratic sangfroid that masks his despair at the depths of human depravity.

Their scenes bring us back to the meat of Weiss’s play, which confronts us with both the inevitability and futility of revolution. Certainly, it resonates with today’s global sociopolitical situation more than we’d like it to: the poor masses clamouring for change, up against a tiny but super-rich and powerful elite; authorities obsessed with law and order at the expense of human rights. We don’t need any interpolated allusions to Stephen Harper to see the parallels.

Marat/Sade may no longer be as daring as it was in the 1960s, but it still has the capacity to provoke. That happens only fitfully here. By the time Marat is assassinated—with, perhaps predictably, a tableau mimicking Jacques-Louis David’s iconic painting—and the play comes to its chaotic conclusion, we find the whole thing has been bloody good fun. But it seems wrong to be vigorously applauding a show that, by rights, ought to leave us rattled.