In the first of a series of interviews and behind the scenes sneak-peeks Garreth Cruikshank interviews Barry French – director of Marat/Sade, being presented by the New Theatre. Opening October 4th.
GC: What attracted you to the play/project of Marat/Sade?
BF: Initially, sentiment. I remember seeing it way back in the early 1980’s at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg while I was still a drama student and it made a big impression on me. There was something fresh and vibrant in its approach to the text. I have always liked political theatre, theatre with a purpose and it seemed to carry a message relevant to apartheid South Africa.
GC: How have you approached it for a modern audience & what do you bring to this classic that is unique?
BF: I think the first thought I had was to find what might make a modern audience relate to this strange historical text but on reading it I couldn’t shake the sense that it was as relevant now as it was in 1964 England, 1980’s South Africa, and 2016 Australia. The problem is that the world has moved on and there is a greater expectation of technical wizardry and special effects to dazzle and distract the audience. I wondered how it would talk to a young audience. What do we make of the Theatre of Cruelty, Poor Theatre (isn’t it all?), Brechtian Theatre in 2016. But then I re-read the play and reflected on it’s themes and I couldn’t shake the idea that there was enough going on in the world at the moment that resonated directly with the text.
GC: Why have you sought to interpret it in the context of the current geopolitical context?
BF: We are living through one of those extended periods of war and social upheaval of which we humans are very fond. For Peter Weiss it was WW2 with its excesses and the holocaust. For us it’s the upheaval from Sep 11, 2001. Turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, the endless wars in Kashmir, Palestine have led to revolutions and counter-revolutions across the regions. And in amongst them all are the ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of the violence. Seared into my mind are the “15 glorious years” (as the song goes) from the falling of the Twin Towers to the emergence of Daesh. Those terrible murderous videos which I now refuse to watch to deprive them of their power. Then on top of that our own government has chosen a group of people at random, people fleeing the terror and chosen to imprison them and take away their hope. I began to see that we have a new Theatre of Cruelty and we are watching it on our televisions.
GC: You have adopted a quite radical staging of the play – Why?
BF: I want a modern audience to constantly see the modern world in our telling of the play. It starts from the premise: what would happen if, to alleviate the despair and boredom of our asylum centres they decided to put on a play which in some way told a little of their story. Of course there are inconsistencies, but if you follow the conceit that a bunch of mental patients can put on a play, why not people traumtised by war and incarceration? We know that our policies are driving people to madness: serious personality disorders, suicide, burning themselves, sewing up their lips, total mental anguish from being separated from their families.It made me wonder if the inmates of Charenton couldn’t also have been refugees from the reality of the French revolution. So I took a deep breath and decided to pursue this grand experiment. Once I stepped in it meant I was free from other constraints of an historically known production: if I was casting the play form the people available why couldn’t I have women play major roles – they are after all just representing a character, the gender became irrelevant. I started by casting people who could plausibly look like they would belong in one of our refugee prison camps but then began to think actually, at some point in time anyone could be in that position, and I cast from the people available.
GC: What have been the main hurdles/challenges so far?
BF: Courage and time. I think if I had more courage I would have tried to cast this play from inexperienced actors with a refugee background. One of the elements holding me back was a sense of respecting the trauma they may already have experienced and not wanting to stir it up again. I also had limited time and rehearsal space with an unpaid cast meaning I needed to use people with at least basic theatre training. I had some people fall out as they found the play confronting and others who didn’t have the experience to meet a basic level of performance. I have decided that this production should be a professional development experience as much as anything else and have tried to give people roles they would not normally get to play. The other factor then was time: given that we have a large cast with everyone compelled to work for a living we have had virtually no rehearsals with a full cast. We needed time to get the music together and could have done with another year to get detailed work into every moment.
The design has been a dream working once again with Tom Bannerman who is very easily led by daft ideas and happy to contribute his own. Our starting premise was to work from found objects and then take a bit of creative licence. I am very happy with the incongruities in our modern world clashing with the historical details of the play. I hope they serve to “alienate” and cause reflection on the links to now.
I also wanted to find a way to show how the next generation is also impacted and have been delighted to have a young 10 year old join us (her dad’s in the show). That has caused me some reflection as to how far we can go in this version. I am quite protective of children whilst respecting their courage.
I have been privileged to have a cast who has agreed to go along with my conceit and collaborated at building this version of the story. In then end I have decided to relax and allow an experience of “poor theatre” to grace the stage of the New Theatre and hopefully cause a few conversations and reflections. I think Peter Weiss would be happy to see his play told for a modern audience.
By the way, go and see “Chasing Asylum”, a documentary about our treatment of refugees. That was a great spur to keep the conversation going.