One of the great joys of the initial season in a new year of WAAPA productions is witnessing the second year students being unleashed on the public for the first time. In this case the acting students but it was lovely to see so many of the second musical theatre students in the audience as well (whose turn comes with Hiawatha starting tonight). Both classes will become very familiar to those who regularly attend WAAPA shows over the next two years. For now it’s getting to know who these talented performers are and what an introduction this play, indeed quasi-musical, provides!
Set in 1808 where a play is being performed in an insane asylum directed by none other than the Marquis De Sade (Angus Mclaren), it explores the events leading up to the murder of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat (Will Mcneill) by Charlotte Corday (Kate Betcher) in 1793. The inmates play the roles while Sade watches on amused as their re-enactment morphs into an indictment of the French Revolution and the very institution in which the play is being staged.
This is observed in growing horror by a representative of the Bonaparte regime, Coulmier (Lachlan Ruffy) who insists that it is now a different, enlightened time. The inmates’ disagreement leads to events that parallel the very revolutionary fervour they act out. All the while Sade, playing himself, has philosophical discussions with Marat about the nature of revolution and of human nature itself. In the end the poor are still poor and the revolution delivered a greater dictator in the form of Napoleon than the king they overthrew and beheaded. What then was the point? Does man’s essential nature render revolution redundant?
This play within a play is a dense dialectical discussion delivered in rhyme and song with several complex layers that make it challenging but also entertaining and unpredictable. The songs, as noted by Musical Director Timothy How in the program, are not in the accepted tradition of musical theatre but are deliberate interruptions to the narrative flow to provide commentary and reinforce political and social points of view.
The work of Gabrielle Mickel, Rory O’Keeffe, Giuseppe Rotondella and Brittany Santariga as the four major singers was a real driving force in their colourful and energetic representation with full throated vocal performances. In the intimate configuration of the Enright Studio there were times they were up close and their eye contact was very good with the audience as they mocked and cavorted and implored.
George Pullar as the Herald who sets the play within a play in motion and announces the scenes (and reminds inmates of their lines from time to time) was a strong presence throughout. There was a slyness to his performance that I enjoyed. Mclaren is ever the provocateur as Sade with his showcase moment coming when he is voluntarily whipped by a female inmate as he rails against the revolution. Betcher has a sweet voice as Corday but was much stronger in the second half as the deed is finally done and her depiction as a narcoleptic inmate seemed more credible.
Alexander Daly injected earnest urgency as Jacques Roux who beseeches the inmates and revolutionaries alike to open the granaries and feed the poor all the while being straight-jacketed and ill-treated by the male nurses. Kieran Clancy-Lowe plays (an inmate who plays) Duperret as a fop who only has sexual designs on Corday but is thwarted at every turn. Given that it’s the notorious Sade directing the play within the play, carnal desire and sexuality is an ever present undercurrent that bursts into a tidal wave of frenetic energy during the ‘Copulation’ sequence that is bawdy and gleefully performed.
Then there is Marat himself who is afflicted with a skin disease that forces him to take soothing baths administered by his carer Simonne (Sarah Greenwood). Mcneill has the tricky task of playing a damaged inmate while also rising to the task of debating Sade as the revolutionary who still plots and schemes on the very day of his murder. It is a conceit of the play that a dysfunctional patient could hold his own in such discussions but Mcneill does well particularly in the more rousing moments as Marat. Greenwood gives Simonne a physical affliction and is all twisted and shuffling as Marat’s carer. More than once I felt her malevolent one eyed stare as she glowered at the audience.
Timothy How adds musical texture on the harpsichord while the costuming and makeup is excellent. Director Andrew Lewis makes full use of the black box space with actors clambering up poles along the wall and moving behind and through the audience who are seated on all four sides.
Talking briefly to an audience member who saw the original production at the Playhouse Theatre in 1966 the one element that was perhaps missing was a sense of ‘danger’ – the audience is a surrogate for those watching at the insane asylum but at no point is there any real sense of ‘threat’ from the inmates. Having said that, I enjoyed this dense and layered play and it is a promising introduction to the second year acting class.
Written by Peter Weiss, Directed by Andrew Lewis, Musical Director Timothy How and featuring the 2nd year acting class of Miranda Aitken, Anneliesse Apps, Kate Betcher, Kieran Clancy-Lowe, Alexander Daly, Joel Davies, Sophia Forrest, Sarah Greenwood, Angus Mclaren, Will Mcneill, Gabrielle Mickel, Rory O’Keffe, Emma O’Sullivan, George Pullar, Lukas Radovich, Giuseppe Rotondella, Lachlan Ruffy, Brittany Santariga and Megan Smart, Marat Sade is at the Enright Studio until Thursday 19 March.