Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Wednesday 26th October, 2011-10-26
I don’t know what kinds of prigs and prudes attend the shows at the RST on a regular basis, or what kinds of idiots would fork out ticket money for a show that might not be to their taste. Perhaps they are the kind of people who like nothing better than being offended.
What was it then that reportedly sent people flocking from their seats? The simulated fellatio performed on a prone archbishop? The unholy communion performed by said archbishop during which he farted in the face of each celebrant in turn? The F words? The C word? I don’t know. On the whole, I found the shock value a little low. Perhaps I am more inured to depravity than the delicate flowers who took umbrage at this provocative production.
The show makes every effort to be relevant and contemporary. There is imagery suggestive of situations in the Middle East and Guantanamo Bay – that terrible American soldier lady posing cheerily for a photo with a torture victim, for example. The play-within-a-play, performed by the inmates of an asylum, is, in the end, a clothes line on which to peg ideas political and theatrical, rather than to enlighten us with anecdotes of incidents from the French Revolution. We are shown the insanity in the world today and, sad to say, folks, things don’t seem to have changed much since 1964 – or, the play would argue – since the French Revolution…
The cast capture the earnest amateurism of the inmates as they lumber through their performance to an invited audience of worthies – kept at a safe distance up on the balcony with the musicians. They drop out of their character’s character to express frustration, in good old-fashioned Anglo Saxon, when props aren’t there, or the leading lady has succumbed yet again to narcolepsy. It is amusing, in the same way as watching the mentally ill be paraded through auditions for The X Factor is amusing.
The inmates watch events outside of their play through the screens of their mobile phones. When they show signs of becoming a little too feisty, their ringtones go off and they are immediately captivated by their handheld devices. This is how the director of the hospital controls his patients. But the production more than hints that we are subject to the same control mechanisms as these poor, disturbed sods. The mobile phones are a metaphor for the madness that keeps them at a remove from reality. When our phones ring, we, like the unfortunate inmates, are taken out of the present. We are there but we are not ‘all there’.
Their play about revolution breaks down, in direct correlation to the way society breaks down after a revolution. The closing moments of Act One degenerate into chaos (beautifully choreographed and lit as it may be). One inmate is stripped naked and anally raped with a dildo (right before your very eyes) – and this is not part of their play-acting. When we see him again after the interval, he resumes his role in the drama with welts on his face. The audience has to keep the layers of performance clear: when are the actors acting as actors acting?
Some sequences are more effective than others. The Marquis de Sade calmly relates an horrific story of torture and mutilation that doesn’t require any on stage illustration, but then I lost the thread of one of his later speeches as, in drag, he was chained up and repeatedly tasered.
As inmates, the cast presents a range of disorders and afflictions. The compulsive masturbator provides much of the comic…relief, for want of a better term. Oliver Rix (so dashing in the title role of Cardenio) plays one of the quieter patients, childlike and prone to outbursts; he reaches into a toilet, pulls out a turd and smears it across his handsome face.
The show is loosely held together by Lisa Harrold as the “Herald”. At one point, she asks an audience member for financial assistance for her online shopping habit. She throws the pound coin donated by the hapless punter to the floor and tears verbal strips off him with four-letter invective. At another point, the Marquis de Sade pelts the audience with open bags of popcorn. I wanted more of this kind of thing. I wanted to feel as though anything could happen at any moment. I didn’t want to sit back passively and watch the action unfold. I wanted to feel more uncomfortable than I did. It seems to me that director Anthony Neilson could have gone further.
Peter Weiss’s play has left a legacy that I find disturbing. Every performing arts course and unimaginative physical theatre company now uses the setting of an insane asylum as the basis for pieces of work. It has become a cliche, in my experience, to use the mentally ill as a springboard for drama. None of them do it with the impact of this groundbreaking play.
A thought occurs to me: perhaps those gentle, sheltered souls who walked out thought they had booked tickets for a Sade concert. If so, I have even less sympathy for their affronted sensibilities.