By Peter Weiss. New Theatre (NSW). October 5 – November 5, 2016

Peter Weiss’ intricately written play about rebellion and counter rebellion, profiteering and war, and the cavernous gulf between the rich and poor and the ruled and the oppressed comes to disconcerting new life in this incredible production directed by Barry French.

Though the play is about revolution in France between 1789 and 1794, director Barry French asked himself a simple question: “What if this play, meant to be told by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton, was being told by the inmates of a contemporary asylum centre?” After all, mental health issues, violence, apathy, assaults, rapes, people sewing their lips together, suicides, hangings and immolations have been reported at length in our own government’s detention centres as well as those in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. It seems a fitting comparison. And it works – amazingly effectively.

To those who know the play, or may have seen Peter Brook’s movie, or those who have studied Artaud and Grotowski and Brecht, French, with Weiss, has incorporated Theatre of Cruelty, Theatre of the Poor and Brechtian alienation in a production that is uniquely fresh and compelling. As such, it’s a ‘must see’ for Year 11 and 12 Drama teachers and their students – and for all those who appreciate brave and innovative theatre.

Seating has been reconfigured to surround three sides of Tom Bannerman’s inspired set – a square reinforced wire cage that reaches to the ceiling of the theatre. When the play begins, a bathtub-like boat rocks on a sea of wind swept waves, from which hands reach out for rescue. The waves subside, and are pulled away, revealing the detainees crouching in their ‘prison’, Marat itching in his bathtub tended by the ever-faithful Simmone.

French and his cast used real-life anecdotes and viewings of the documentary movie, Chasing Asylum,to create contemporary backstories for the rebellious, disillusioned and disturbed characters of Weiss’ play. Their characterisations are clearly and confrontingly established and are sustained through revolutionary zeal, unruly mutiny and cowering defeat. Haunted eyes stare; hands are wrung or shake; voices sing with joy at one moment, quiver in fear at the next. This is ensemble work at its best, the supporting cast as much in character as those who lead them.

Annette van Roden plays the extreme revolutionary martyr Marat. Wrapped in white, and constantly tended by Simmone (played with discomforting intensity by Gareth Cruikshank), Marat writes of revolution, urging the Jacobins to rise up. Van Roden is a powerful presence, intense, red-rimmed eyes, vacantly staring or flashing with the fire of fanaticism, as she tries with words to overpower the incapacitated body trapped in its watery prison.

Mark Langham is the Marquis de Sade, arrogant at times, introspective at others, always watching or listening, a strong, commanding figure. Jacques Roux, the radical priest is played by Leilani Loau, whose face, hands and body to express the anger and anguish of zealot. Jim McCrudden calls things to order as the Herald, using the metre of the verse to inject a little needed humour.

Leading the ensemble in song to the stunning compositions by Nate Edmonson are Irene Sarrinikolaou, Tim De Sousa, Debra Bryan and Patrick Howard. Their strength and energy are a vital part of the performance.

These are but a few of the twenty-one strong cast who have worked so closely with Barry French to achieve his vision of a new and more contemporary production of a play that is so well-known, but so seldom performed. It is a vibrant, confronting piece of theatre that moves from song to sadness, anger to failure and despair with gripping passion.

Barry French, his cast and crew and the New Theatre are to be congratulated on this bold, theatrical production.

Carol Wimmer

Photographer: © Bob Seary

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