The full title of this film version of the notorious Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Peter Weiss' German teleplay is "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." That's quite a mouthful for any film or play and it is usually referred to by the shorter title above.
It's been quite a while since we last joined friend Richard at his 13-seater cinema in his garden and decided to go for his screening of the above rarely shown film. I knew that I had seen it previously, but frankly had no recollection of it whatsoever. If you look it up on IMDb, you will find a ream of glowing reviews posted by fans of the production. However, having now seen it for the second time, I think it is a clear case of 'the emperor's clothes', since in fact it is a very bad and at times unwatchable movie. I have no doubts whatsoever that the stage production was a brilliant and memorable event. The RSC was touring the United States in the early 60s, and Peter Brook's production played on Broadway from the end of 1965 for an impressive 145 performances.
Now it is one thing to film a play or an opera without opening it out and for the end result still to be cinematic by a crafty combination of long shots from various angles and judicious use of close-ups. However when Brook attempted to capture the essence of the Broadway staging, he seemed to say to himself, just how clever can I be to make this look like cinema rather than something stagey. The end result is a combination of blurry images, half-chopped off heads, and irreconcilable changes of perspective. At one stage we are the invited audience sitting behind the bars that protect the patrons from the inmates; at other times we are prancing amongst them -- all with little rhyme nor reason. The sound quality is also very poor and while most of the longer speeches are audible, the musical interludes (and there are many of these) by a Greek chorus of grotesques just come across as discordant noise rather than meaning. The cinema version of this Brechtian distancing and 'theatre of cruelty' loses its physicality and much of the probable power it had when seen live.
Against this there are some stand-out performances by actors who have subsequently become well-known indeed and there are a number of other familiar faces behind the layers of offputting make-up that much of the cast wear. Patrick Magee gives a powerful rendering of the decadent De Sade, while an ever-so-young Ian Richardson plays the inmate playing Marat. The gist of the drama stems from the contrast between the idealism of the revolutionary Marat ("what we do is but a shadow of what we want to do") vs. the existential, sybaritic, and nihilistic leanings of De Sade. The latter's point of view is there is no point of a revolution without general copulation and the cast chant this and bring it to bear in the general melee that ends the action. This production was America's first glimpse of the young Glenda Jackson, a narcoleptic inmate playing the assassin Charlotte Corday, and her performance was the start of a meteoric rise. Finally there is an immediately recognizable Michael Williams (Judi Dench is his widow) playing the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets.
At nearly two hours it is a hard watch, especially since much of the dialogue does not register and much of the stylized action goes by in a hazy blur. The political sentiments were meant to be as meaningful now as they were back in the eighteenth century and as they were to their German author post World War II -- and maybe they are if one could have taken it all in. Am I pleased to have seen the film again? Not really, but I do wish I could have seen the Broadway production back in the day...