Writer: Ziyana Lategan
Photographs: Oscar O’ryan
The Baxter Theatre’s 2017 staging of Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of Marquis de Sade or Marat/Sade is without doubt, superbly performed. The stage, made to look like the inside of an asylum, made to look like a stage, was perfectly Brechtian in its effect. The audience, functioning as the actual audience in the asylum, was constantly made complicit in the spectacle of the performance – if not by being spoken to directly as The Audience, or finding the body of a patient hurled at it, then by being illuminated by the lighting and stage managerial team as a reminder that it is no less part of the play than any other existing element in the Flipside. In all aspects, it was not a performance the audience could passively consume without being inflicted with the disturbances and affectations borne by the discontented by which the play is staged.
Marat/Sade is a representation of the assassination of the great French Revolutionary and theorist Jean-Paul Marat (played by Charlton George, who in fact displays an uncanny resemblance to the historical figure) as written by de Sade, excellently delivered by Mncedisi Shabangu, and performed by the inmates of an asylum.
The meat of the play can be reduced to an ideological boxing match, with Marat advocating for revolution and individual human rights even in its obvious failure, and Sade, the cynical French writer, caring little for the idealism of social justice, and much for the carnal, sexual, and sadistic. This delightful and disturbing sparring show, delivered through a series of monologues representing either side of the debate, could not be possible without the fiction of the play and its players. The play is heavily reliant on the chorus to move it – just as they are moved by it. Charlotte Corday, Marat’s murderer, played by Tinarie van Wyk, suffers from an annoying case of narcolepsy, and so can only perform the assassination if she is woken up by her fellow over-excited and easily distracted inmates. Although they bow to his wisdom, Marat quite literally cannot be killed without the aid of the mob. Sade’s use of the dispensable body, spectacular in its corporality,by dangling Siphenathi Mayekiso from the ceiling as he recalls in tremendous pleasure the 1757 torture of Damiens, as Foucault famously does in the opening to Discipline and Punish, is a thrilling visual scene which makes Sade’s celebration of the singularity of death as sublime as only he could imagine.
Under the jolt and the intermittent levity of the play however was a sinister discomfort that I could not overcome. In his director’s note, Jaco Bower makes several references to the relevance of the play to South African audiences in light of recent events. The most obvious being the (im)possibility of true change through collective revolutionary action by the underclasses. Marat’s lament over the failures of the French Revolution to truly liberate its people, resulting only in the ‘freedom to starve’, is one such parallel. Wittingly or not, Marat points directly to an over-represented white settler propertied class in the Baxter audience, chiding them for the protection of their bourgeois private property. Of course, this point would not have been so poignant had art consumers in South Africa not been so overwhelmingly white, decades after our own ‘failed revolution’.
Bower has a similar point to make about the multi-racial cast when he writes“I felt that the diverse demographic of a local cast generates exciting resonances with our local time and space without being too on the nose”. Far from being on the nose, the casting choices almost appeared obtuse at times. One such moment was when Sade, played by a black man, mocks the idea of patriotism by painting his face and body in the tricolours of the French flag. It was as if Bower had forgotten that in order for the Great French Revolution to occur, those who share Shabangu’s hue had to be enslaved and sold in the colonies by the French he is directed to represent. The body paint – red, blue, and white, on black skin – was the perfect post-colonial dystopian depiction. In this instance, Bower directs the one who is made to appear as a director: fittingly resembling a black ruling party as directed by a white imperialist settler class. Black skins. White, red, and blue masks.In the same vein, Charlton George who plays Marat the peoples hero, almost resembled a smug Ronnie Kasrils in Miners Shot Down when he hypocritically bemoans how he fought for freedom and now his comrades have become the exploiters.
Whilst supremely important in understanding revolutionary violence and historical change, the insensitivity of staging the effects of a failed European revolution in a settler colony by a multi-racial cast in the midst of a decolonial moment, is mind-boggling. In all fairness, Bower is not completely deaf to this prickly point:
“Here I find myself in an authoritative position as director making this work in this country at this moment and I seriously question myself, my position, my authority. There is a Sadean aspect to being in this position, guiding, manipulating, provoking actors, and although I might not have a personal history regarding revolution as such, I can connect to it emotionally.”
Bower questions and forgives himself in one swift move by gently reaffirming the nightmare of the rainbow nation: the universality of human suffering.He cunningly underplays his role by stating that he, as director, is being moved by a Sadean aspect, where in reality, Sade in all his everyday blackness is being moved by Bower.
Are white theatre makers still silently resisting the very evident unravelling of the notion of a ‘common humanity’ under colonial-capitalism? The call to decolonise is in effect to make the point that freedom of the European (underclass and all) is made possible by the suffering of the African, and as such, neither our freedom nor our suffering can be shared.Neither the play, nor even the Paris Commune cared for plight of the French slave, because some French subjects are more equal than others. European revolutions, even in glorious failure, do not change the plight of the colonised. When the European underclass is granted liberty, the Empire is compensated by the super-exploitation of the colonised. Appealing and satisfying in theatre, our revolutions and their failures remain historically incomparable. Exposing the audience to parallels between European nations and those in their colonies has the effect of making them similar, but not causally inter-connected.
One must be mad, a state created successfully by the play and its cast, in order to be swept away by the trick of universality, a common humankind even in suffering and abjection, and a still white European visual and performance artistic space. How Bower is reminded of Johnny Dyani and Dumile Feni by the German playwright Peter Weiss is sheer madness – as is his inability to distinguish between when resistance is progressive for the colonial world, and when it is simply none of our business.
As the play closes, Jaques Roux, played by Richard September, tries his best to relieve himself of his straight jacket and manages to free his hands and grasp the microphone. It is here where the mad man issues the audience with the cold and piercing sanity of our time, he screams and writhes warning us of the cunning of Charlotte Corday. When will you wake up? He screams. When will you see that is it not in fact our obvious enemies that we should be weary of (like those whose puppet costumes are of masters), but rather, those who pretend to neutrality and universality, those who shroud their violence and cunning in guises not articulated.