As a theatrical production in London and New York, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version, under Peter Brook’s direction, of Peter Weiss’ play has elements to make it impressive and stunning, also horrific and repellent. There were consummate performances, eye-filling spectacle, weighty natural verse, engrossing drama, burlesque (in its pristine sense), and, above all, startling originality. As a film directed and acted by the same director and cast, the result is somewhat less.
Ostensibly ‘a play within a play,’ written by De Sade, story centers on a single action – the murder of the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday while he issued dictums to the people of Paris from his bathtub. The action, however, is hysterically performed by the inmates until their excitation reaches an intolerable pitch, and each segment of the action is periodically aborted just short of pandemonium by lengthy arguments between the paranoiac Marat and the egomaniacal De Sade over their conflicting views of man vs society and vice versa.
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In the end, Marat is murdered, the action completed, and total mayhem ensues. The inmates assault their keepers and the audience and their barely supressed capacity for violence is released.
Paradoxically, though film is supposed to be a more ‘intimate’ medium, the play is more remote on film. The gain, however, is that the viewer’s attention is riveted on the speeches.
Performances are uniformly excellent. There are several moments in the film that make the hair bristle and skin crawl.