Bristol Old Vic
Opened 15 November, 1996

Bristol Old Vic's artistic director Andrew Hay celebrates fifty years of both the theatre and its attached drama school by staging a play with a cast big enough to accommodate a dozen or so final-year students alongside an equal number of professionals, Peter Weiss's 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. (Given that the title occupies virtually the entirety of the publicity image, it would have been nice to have got it right thereon.)

It is the students who command most attention in this production: Deborah Steel as the narcoleptic patient playing Marat's assassin Charlotte Corday, Alun Thomas as a cunning erotomaniac playing Corday's lover Duperret, Richard Coyle periodically disrupting proceedings as the straitjacketed "Jacques Roux" and the quartet of chorus singers. In most respects, the trappings of the play are more interesting than its substance.

This is not simply because Hay cannot reproduce the sensation of the first English production in 1964, described by its director Peter Brook as "a kick in the balls". Audiences may now have heard of "theatre of cruelty", but still experience it seldom enough for it to make a genuine impression. Here, however, Hay only nods towards such an aesthetic; the dominant feeling, as one sits in the comfortable, intimate Georgian auditorium of the Theatre Royal, is akin to that of prosperous French society two centuries ago as it patronised performances at asylums such as Charenton all surprise or threat is diligently restrained.

Weiss's play, too, has not aged well. At its centre sit a number of artificial exchanges between de Sade and Marat the latter the protagonist of the piece, the former its supposed director. As Marat, Mike Shepherd delivers his political oratory well but does little to counteract Weiss's neglect to suggest any palpable character to the man; Terry Taplin's de Sade is a man so far removed from the world around him that he scarcely ever even deigns to look directly at it, treating all words and events as if they were of abstract and theoretical importance only.

In a sense, he is right. For these exchanges pit Marat's revolutionary socialist standpoint against de Sade's anarchic, nihilistic view. This is a political dialectic rooted in the flux and potential of the 1960s; three decades on, at the alleged end of history, each of these perspectives seems not just implausible, but verges on the inconceivable. If the play no longer speaks directly to its audience, and the production shies away from alternative strategies of grabbing their attention, sadly little remains.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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