From the moment one sets foot in the theatre for this production of Marat/Sade, there is an awareness of entering a different world, disconcerting and alien.
The walls are shrouded in white drapery, the stage curtain is likewise white, lit from behind with human shapes silhouetted intermittently against it and an occasional hand outlined in apparent supplication
Even the least imaginative member of the audience begins to suspect that we are in the confines of a lunatic asylum with padded walls.
When the curtain rises on an assemblage of grotesquely costumed and painted individuals, the impression of a quasi-surreal world is confirmed; these people are to re-enact the assassination of philosopher Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, performed by the asylum’s inmates as directed by the perverse Marquis de Sade.
The year of the murder is 1793, the play is staged in 1808, and the issues raised in the course of its performance are uncomfortably relevant in the South Africa of 2017.
Different period, different country, same brain-wrenching questions to be addressed.
The euphoria of revolution has passed, and in its place is growing disillusionment with the new status quo which benefits the bourgeoisie at the expense of the poor. Sounds familiar?
Plus ça change
The violence concomitant with these disappointed expectations is all the more extravagant in a small space where people divided from their reason by mental illness can express it, and interventions by those representing authority become increasingly ineffectual as the action unfolds.
From the glib opening clichés uttered by the hospital’s director to the anarchy in which his clothes are donned by the most abused patient in the institution, this is about the breakdown of one order and its replacement with another – among other things.
Bouwer tackles the meaty material of Peter Weiss’s play-within-a-play with his customary inventiveness; the monochromatic stage is relieved only by the blood-red dress of Corday and a suggestion of the tricolour, its red, white and blue daubed comprehensively over Sade himself in an image gravid with irony.
It says much for the calibre of both acting and direction that the play’s 90 minutes (without interval) seem to pass so swiftly.
The action is fluid, sometimes in the truth of the play and sometimes in the truth of its execution by a non-professional cast who miss cues and occasionally lose the plot as well. This adds a grim humour to the proceedings, but the laughter it generates is hollow.
Lustrous performances from Shabangu (Sade), George (Marat), and notably from Van Wyk Loots (Corday) are strongly underpinned by committed acting from the substantial cast of secondary characters, among whom petite Christelle Dreyer is memorable as Marat’s nurse, Simonne.
The chorus of seven offers ragged singing of pathos and unconventional beauty, their antics choreographed for maximum impact by Grant van Ster.
This is theatre in which one is intellectually stimulated rather than emotionally stirred: the characters are historical stereotypes with whom it is not easy to identify, but the ideas and issues they represent in this stylised setting have the universality to engage audiences.
Caricature and whimsy, however exaggerated, do not undermine the potency of this remarkable work