Marat/Sade: The theatre of politics

Mncedisi Shabangu as the Marquis de Sade. Photo: Oscar O’Ryan.

We’re not so different after all, us South Africans. In the end, it turns out all revolutions are equal. Same shit, different characters.

But ours was bloodless, we argue. It was a negotiation. It was a willing release of power to avoid civil war. It was unique.

Well, the unrecognised civil war that raged in KwaZulu Natal in the early ‘90s was certainly not bloodless, nor the daily death toll on the East Rand, and ‘willing’ would be an inaccurate description.

Even if our revolution was unique in delivery, it has become far too predictable in outcome.

Oh, inarguably democracy – in its formal definition of a government elected by all the people – is preferable to a fascist, racist state in which only a pale proportion of the population get to choose their rulers and benefit from their corruption, but whereas the blunt baton of state oppression was used to bludgeon the populace into place, the increasingly blunt propaganda of liberation is being levered to fortify the new ruling class’s privilege, with similar, although non-racial, results.

Still we resist; the story is too compelling despite its increasingly apparent untruths. We so desperately want to believe our carefully crafted narrative that we would rather deceive ourselves than grapple with the hard truth. Yet the very self-destructive nature of deceit means it cannot be sustained. Eventually the house of cards must submit to its own fragility, and so the cycle of revolution is enacted once again.

This is what Marat/Sade reminds us of – just in case we had forgotten – the theatre of politics. The full title of the play written by Peter Weiss in 1963 is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Peformed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Cherenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, which pretty much provides the synopsis right there, and places it at the French Revolution. But as mentioned, the parity of revolutions in terms of their broader strokes means director and designer of this iteration, Jaco Bouwer, has not had to work too hard to place it within the frame of our own nation. In fact, to his credit, he doesn’t play to local politics at all. Despite this, the comparison between our Parliament and the asylum kept surfacing, for me. Following a Freudian passage of lateral connection, it was the repeated appearance of the asylum jackbooted nurses who forcibly restore order when the inmates (actors) start getting overworked, which reminded me of the black-trousered-white-shirted parliamentary security officials manhandling het-up EFF MPs out the building to maintain the pretense of order and stability.

Following this subjective thread would make Parliament an asylum, but Jacob Zuma would not be the Marquis de Sade. We, the people, fulfil that role.

Zuma would be Marat. Just replace the bath for a shower, and Baleka Mbete would be Coulmier, the director of the asylum who steps up when matters start cutting too close to the bone, reprimands Sade for challenging the bourgouise status quo and vainly appeals to the audience to bear in mind that this is ‘just history’.

Without giving the game away, suffice to say the effort of trying to pretend an absurd situation is normal is enough to drive the most stable person mad. Madame Speaker beware.

All well and good, but does Bouwer, a Marthinus Basson protege who came into his own long ago with work that continually pushes visual and theatrical boundaries to leave his audience stunned and standing on their feet, deliver?

The answer is not yes. It’s not no either.

Like the latest iterations of our State of the Nation Adress, it is disquieting, disturbing even, but predictable. From what I’ve seen, Bouwer has a leaning toward the visually unsettling, for twisting convention to reveal surprising insights, but this pretty much conformed to expectation of what Marat/Sade might look like if pushed toward the grotesque a la Bouwer. And given the nature of the play itself, his version of the wretched was delivered in costume and make up rather than, with a few exceptions, delivery. This, combined with a lack of enunciation by Mncendisi Shabangu as the Marquis de Sade, meant it felt as if I was missing out integral sections of the play from the back row. It felt like a bit of a drag.

What kept it afloat was standout performances by Siphenathi Mayekiso as one the patients whose understated prescense maintained a constant edge, and Tinarie van Wyk Loots who sleepwalked through her role as Charlotte Corday, who we know is going to murder Marat. Charlton George was superbly cast as Jean-Paul Marat, although at times I couldn’t hear him so well at the back either.

Andrew Laubscher was fantastic as the Herald, seeming to draw on his Rocky Horror Picture Show expertise to great effect, and Marty Kintu as Coulmier (think Baleka Mbete in this long running metaphor) was his usual charismatic self.

The balance of all this left the play in the black. A success. Yet I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. I’ll admit this may have more to do with my own expectations – I’m always wanting Bouwer to blow me away the way he did with his Standard Bank Young Artist Award work, Untitled. This didn’t make that grade, but it’s Bouwer’s fault the bar is set so high.

Marat/Sade is on at the Baxter Flipside until 25 March. Book here.

Steve Kretzmann

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