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, by Peter Weiss | Directed by Barry French

New Theatre (http://newtheatre.org.au) | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 5 November

I could easily have left New Theatre’s opening-night performance of Peter Weiss’s ground-breaking 1963 play, better known simply as Marat/Sade, brimming with disappointment.

I’d entered the theatre with memories that must have been magnified many times by the telescope of time ... memories of seeing the play at Sydney Uni in the early 1970s during the heady days of the anti-Vietnam protest movement ... memories of a would-be revolutionary standing fist-raised in the audience as Jean-Paul Marat exhorted his followers to rise up ... memories that no doubt could have created totally unrealistic expectations.

Yet I left boiling over with excitement, enthusing about the quality and huge, but completely realised, ambition of what I had just seen, filled again with wonderment at the genius of Weiss’s writing and the imagination that had yielded this truly remarkable concept. Yes, this had been a performance for the ages.

Just entering the performance space whets excitement. New Theatre has been reset in the round, the stage area completely enclosed by a robust steel-mesh chastity belt, reminiscent of that used by the modern-day gladiators of the ‘sport’ called cage-wrestling.

Inside the cage, a small boat is being tossed on a seething ocean, the constant rolling and undulating of the blue sheeting being effected by a mostly hidden cast of more than 20 players.

Every now and then a desperate, flailing body emerges from the waves, an occupant of the boat trying in vain to pull it to safety. And then the wretched souls are climbing the cage, reaching through it towards the audience, imploring their assistance, seemingly crying out that they are human too.

Yes, director Barry French has woven throughout the production his own message about the desperation of fleeing refugees and our barbaric treatment of them in detention centres. It adds a poignant and deeply moving lash of menace, yet never seems to intrude on Weiss’s tale of a rabble of French lunatics being directed by the Marquis de Sade in staging a play about the assassination of firebrand 18th-century revolutionary and radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat.

The lead roles of de Sade and Marat are wonderfully played by Mark Langham and Annette van Roden respectively — the former dispassionate, sardonic and grimly logical in his view of the world; the latter emotion-filled, passionate and desperate to get across a message with at once almost childish optimism and profound despair at human gullibility.

The ‘role reversal’ of having Marat played by a woman and his wife Simmone Evrard by a man (Garreth Cruikshank) works remarkably well, allowing concentration on character rather than diversions into what was apparently a fairly unsatisfactory marriage, at least for Evrard.

Isaro Kayitesi is simply brilliant as the extreme introvert cast by de Sade to play Charlotte Corday, who executed Marat by stabbing and herself was guillotined as a consequence.

It’s certainly not a musical, indeed far from it, but it must also be remembered that Marat/Sade is very much a play with music — and that there is considerable singing, led by the brilliant quartet of Cucurucu (Irene Sarrinikolaou), Polpoch (Patrick Howard), Rossignol (Debra Bryan) and Kokol (Tim de Sousa). Their animated performances are simply superb.

A special mention must go to Liam Smith for his portrayal of the lascivious, oversexed asylum inmate who plays Duperret, an aristocratic encourager of Corday but certainly not an accomplice. His predatory behaviour as he slunk along the cage certainly played with the mind of the Woman with Altitude as she watched from the front row and covered her knees with a jacket.

Look, I could write much more about this play and this production, but I’ll desist and leave the last words to director Barry French: “Reading the play again after so many years I was struck by the fact that nothing has changed from the early 1960s, when Peter Weiss wrote it, to now. The arguments are even more relevant: who controls the markets, who controls the government, the profiteering from war, the disconnect between the rulers and the people, our longing for a total reboot.”

I’ll just urge you to go see it. It rates among the best theatre I’ve seen. Very much thumbs up.

Images: Bob Seary