Adapted from a play by avant-garde writer Peter Weiss, ‘Marat / Sade’ is an uncomfortable piece of confrontational drama that refuses any kind of palliative relief: you will be on edge when you watch it; you will stay on edge. Indeed, it will get more and more uncomfortable. You will not enjoy it, but you will not forget it. My wife saw a theatre adaptation in the eighties where the unease was compounded by having cast members standing around the auditorium in a seemingly catatonic state while, above the audience’s heads, someone swung back and forth manically on a trapeze. Now, that might not be your idea of a good night out but, it’s certainly more memorable than a pie and a pint. It’s the sort of thing that people buy expensive tickets for just to walk out in disgust and give ‘The Daily Mail’ something else to moan about other than brown people and, as such, is undeniably a good thing.
Uncompromising and sometimes hard to watch, there’s madness and violence, rape and murder, as well as some seemingly interminable songs. Most of all, however, there is still genuine power attached to the production, the same power that so divided audiences who saw it performed live. The film version captures as much of this dread atmosphere as it can, and although it can be static, is much more than just a film recording of a memorable production. Best of all, it preserves some fantastic performances, most notably from Ian Richardson, Michael Williams and Glenda Jackson, as well as the wonderful, marvellous, fabulous, unsurpassedly cool Freddie Jones (in his film debut) and an idiosyncratic and brilliantly batty central performance from the purring Patrick Magee as De Sade. Strong stuff, but well worth gulping down.