The Marat/Sade

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The Marat/Sade (1967).

Good to find this Peter Brook film on YouTube (for the time being…) as I’d been watching Ian Richardson in a couple of things recently and wanted to remind myself of how he fares here. He’s excellent, of course, as the serious foil to Patrick Magee’s equally serious Marquis de Sade. Brook’s film is a recording of his stage presentation of Peter Weiss’s play, and the two actors embody the poles of a dialogue about the perennially knotty problems of revolution, freedom, and the interests of the individual in the face of political abstractions. What fascinates most about the play is the Brechtian nature of the drama: structured as a play-within-a-play (we’re watching the inmates of an asylum performing a fictional Sade drama), and with a proxy audience regarding the performance through iron bars, the staging is as far away from dry theorising as you can get. Brief moments of debate between Sade and the asylum inmate portraying Marat act as punctuations between scurrilous chorus songs and frequent scenes of outright chaos which erupt when the demands of performance become too much for the inmates. It’s loud, sardonic, cynical, and often riveting. One of the more miserable features of drama from the 1960s and 70s is the recurrence of ham-fisted political didacticism which, however well-intentioned, makes for a dismal viewing experience. Weiss’s play shows how well you can deliver political rhetoric when the staging doesn’t ignore the presence of a possibly sceptical audience who might also like to be entertained.

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Peter Brook has had a peculiar career as a film director, most of his films being screen adaptations of his stage productions, or odd one-offs such as his documentary-like (and somewhat superfluous) film of Lord of the Flies, and the bizarre Meetings with Remarkable Men. (More about that later.) Brook’s Royal Shakespeare Company staging of the Weiss play was performed to great acclaim in 1965 so we’re fortunate that it’s captured so well here. The cast includes many first-rate actors, not only Richardson and Magee but Glenda Jackson as the inmate given the task of portraying Charlotte Corday, Michael Williams as the Herald, and (easy to miss among the clown-faced chorus) Freddie Jones. A low-grade YouTube copy does little for David Watkin’s superb photography which gives the film a very different look to other films of the 1960s. Studios films of the era tended to be horribly over-lit so it’s refreshing to find a film such as this using only the available light to illuminate the action. Searching around for DVDs reveals a single Spanish edition which I’m tempted to buy if I could be sure it was widescreen and with the English soundtrack intact. As for the play itself, the concerns may be typical of the period but many of the sentiments have lost none of their relevance. Highly recommended.

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Brecht and Bowie

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While David Bowie is still making the news it’s worth revisiting Baal, an hour-long BBC TV adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play broadcast in 1981. Bowie stars as the title character, a thoroughly disagreeable poet and café singer who ruins the lives of those around him. This caused a stir at the time more for Bowie’s presence than for the content although Brecht wasn’t exactly a popular choice for evening entertainment. Prior to this most of Bowie’s acting had been in films, with his television appearances being limited to song performances or chat show discussions. The Man Who Fell to Earth aside, I’ve been somewhat dismissive of Bowie’s acting at times, his accent and the sheer weight of his musical persona overwhelm whatever role he’s given, but he’s good in this. He throws himself into the role, and is more convincing than I remember him being a couple of years later in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

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For many people Bowie will be the sole attraction in Baal but for me there’s also the presence of the great Alan Clarke as director and co-adaptor (with John Willett). Clarke directed the cult TV play Penda’s Fen in 1974, and was later responsible for a handful of other notable TV films including Scum, Made in Britain, Road, Elephant (1989), and The Firm, all of which are distinguished by a singular intensity and dramatic power the likes of which is usually only found in the best feature films. Compared to those plays Baal is a minor piece, filmed entirely in the studio, and made deliberately stagey to honour Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. The cameras keep their distance from the performers, and Brechtian distance is also achieved by the use of split-screen, title cards, and Bowie’s direct addresses to the viewer. If this seems like challenging material for a general audience (never mind the singer’s fans) consider that Baal was broadcast in primetime on BBC 1 when there were only three television channels in the UK. This would not happen today.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin