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Marat/Sade ambitious spin on classic Peter Weiss tale

July 15th, 2011 · No Comments

 

 

 

Soup Can company’s interpretation of Marat/Sade examines psychiatric testing at McGill University in the late 1950’s. Photo courtesy Scarlet O’Neil

 

 

 

 

By Síle Cleary

It may only be their second production, but precocious theatre company Soup Can Theatre have taken on a mammoth challenge by reinterpreting the classic Peter Weiss play 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— or Marat/Sade for short.

“Our mandate is to reinterpret older theatrical works for a 21st century audience,” said Parkdale resident Sarah Thorpe, artistic director of the Soup Can company.

“We thought we’d give it a more contemporary setting in order to make it more interesting and relevant to a contemporary Canadian audience.”

Marat/Sade, written by legendary German playwright Peter Weiss in 1963, received worldwide acclaim after it was performed on stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Peter Brook in London in 1964.

The musical/drama tells the story of the 15 years following the French Revolution, through a band of inmates in a Parisian mental institution, who perform a play about revolutionary leader Marat, under the direction of fellow inmate the Marquis de Sade.

As if the play wasn’t complicated enough, given its play-within-a-play structure, Soup Can Theatre have decided to make life even harder for themselves and stripped Marat/Sade of its early 19th century mise-en-scene and placed it in the world of the McGill University Psychiatry Department, circa 1957.

Thorpe explained that it was at McGill University that Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association, performed psychologically-torturous experiments (including the administration of high voltage electroshock, hallucinogenic agents, and paralytic drugs) on non-consenting patients.

The experiments were performed under the umbrella of Project MK-ULTRA, a covert CIA operation which sought to explore the possibilities of mind control, memory erasure, and involuntary information extraction.

Although the play will be shown in the east end, the cast spent the last few months rehearsing in Parkdale in a converted storefront on Queen Street West called Fixt Point.

“Parkdale didn’t inspire me to put on the play, but it has inspired our creative process; Parkdale is dotted with colourful characters, and they certainly have provided a lot of material for our actors,” said Thorpe. “Since we’ve rehearsed not too far from CAMH, passing by there and by Parkdale’s rooming houses on a regular basis reminds us that the mentally ill are not ‘lunatics’ or ‘boogeymen’ and that we have a responsibility as artists to portray them with as much consideration and tact as the script allows.”

In an effort to avoid stereotypical and insensitive depictions of the mentally ill, each ‘patient’ in the Soup Can Theatre production of the play has been assigned a medically recognized mental disorder appropriate for their character, and has been encouraged to inform their performance based on that disorder’s behavioural symptoms.

“The patients in the play represent a range of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, paranoia disorders, and Asperger syndrome,” said Thorpe.

Thorpe admits that directing such an intricate piece of work has proved challenging at times; however, she says she is doing her utmost to effectively depict the two contrasting worlds present in the work of Marat/Sade. “It’s a little tough at times to try to distinguish between the world of the play and the director, Marquis de Sade and the world of the patients and how they are being treated by doctors in the institution.”

“But at the moment we’re definitely fine tuning and showing how these two worlds can be distinguished.”

Marat/Sade marks Soup Can Theatre’s return to the stage after their Kurt Weill inspired cabaret show Love is a Poverty You Can Sell which took the 2010 Toronto Fringe Festival by storm.

The company sold out nine of their 11 shows and were selected to be a part of the coveted ‘Best of the Fringe’ series at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

In noting the comparison between the two productions, Thorpe said, “This Marat/Sade is much larger in scope than any previous productions.”

“We have a six-piece orchestra and a full set so it will be a lot a lot more challenging.” Nevertheless, Thorpe is confident that her highly talented cast will “bring this play to life” on July 19 (opening night) at the historic Alumnae Theatre.

Marat/Sade is a play about empowering society’s forgotten,” said Thorpe. “There are a lot of “forgotten” citizens in Parkdale and I hope that our production might inspire them to stand up for themselves.”

(Tickets for the July 19-24 performances can be bought online from the Marat/Sade website here)

Tags: Arts