Marat/Sade (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford)

Andrew Billen is unmoved by a play that labours too hard to shock.

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

No one stormed out on the day I went. The media have made much of the alleged mass walkouts at this supposedly outrageous reworking of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade but I don't believe them. It is true that not everyone returned after the interval but that is a passive act - an admission that you have wasted your money - and very common.

A walking-out in protest must be done in view of the players. As for the odd empty seat at the start of Act II, on my row, one that had been previously vacant was filled by an elderly lady who had arrived late. You might as well say that I witnessed a walk-in.

To be shocked by a play, you first have to be engaged by it. For all that we see a naked, elderly man being anally interfered with, a masturbating lunatic, a bit of business involving a newly laid turd, a rape and the Marquis de Sade tearing off his shirt to reveal a bra, none of it, judging by the auditorium's church-like silence, bothered us. Weiss's play, first performed in Berlin in 1964 and best known for Peter Brook's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production the same year, attempts to fuse the theatre of cruelty with the drama of alienation. Here, via Artaud and Brecht, came dullness.

The plot is admirably summarised by the play's full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Lunatics of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. You need to know that Marat was a French revolutionary who was murdered by a young woman in 1793; that de Sade gave his funeral oration; and that he did direct plays while incarcerated in an asylum. Having since read the text in Adrian Mitchell's verse version (it is, as Bernard Levin once said of Stockhausen, not as bad as it sounds), I can affirm that it is quite interesting, placing in dialogue a political way of seeing the world (Marat) and a sensual alternative (de Sade) and asking which has the best hope of liberating the individual. As both entail violence and both, taken to extremes, lead to madness, Weiss's idea of having the two philosophers talking to each other over a lunatic pageant of the French Revolution is inspired.

The trouble is, I cannot see how this would work onstage, unless, that is, it was 1964, Marx and Freud were hot, revolution and sex were
in the air and there still remained those capable of taking offence at drama. I suspect that Anthony Neilson, the director of this production, may have felt the same and decided that it was necessary to enliven things by laying on top of an obscure piece further levels of difficulty. This is a disaster, rendering much of the play deeply puzzling.

The RSC updates the piece, setting it both in 1808 and now. There are television sets, shopping trolleys, a posthumous video diary by Marat. The inmates masturbate to porn on their mobile phones, on which they also receive stage directions. Marat dies by revolver, not knife. It is also the Arab spring, so de Sade not only drags up but abayas up.

This year's revolutions, conducted by iPhone, the play seems to say, find inspiration in something closer to de Sade's onanistic individualism than Marat's communism. Neilson further sways the argument in de Sade's direction by casting the suave and capable Jasper Britton in the role, while making Marat, monotonously played by Arsher Ali, as captivating as a Socialist Worker salesman on a Saturday morning.

But how to shock us? Make fun of the mentally infirm? Cast a dwarf in a wheelchair as the herald and then have her impersonated by de Sade? Have a cast member tell us, "F*** off and buy an ice cream!" as the interval approaches? Yes, all of those. The next time someone tells me to f*** off and buy an ice cream, it would be fairer to warn me that it's £3.35 a tub. I hope those who "walked out" made that saving.

Andrew Billen is a writer at the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban