Madame de Sade, in a Donmar production at Wyndham’s Theatre, May 2009Posted on 15 May 2009
The interesting question about this production is why the Donmar decided to devote their excellent creative energies to this play, which is such poor theatre. Indeed it’s not so much a play as a sequence of philosophical discussions concerning the Marquis de Sade and why he had such a strong influence on some of the women close to him. There is little action. All conversations take place in the house of Madame de Montreuil, who was brilliantly played by Judi Dench. She is the mother of de Sade’s wife Renée, excellently portrayed by Rosamund Pike. There are four other actresses, and no male actors. Fiona Button plays Reneé’s sister, who waltzes off to Venice with de Sade at some point in the recent past, but we only hear of this, never see any of it, and the same is true of the rest of the non-drawing room activities. Frances Barber as the Comtesse de Saint-Fond starts the play out by cracking her riding whip, showing a fascination in all forms of sex, and it looks as if this may make interesting theatre. But her later death during a riot in Marseilles, in the early years of the French Revolution, is only recounted in conversation, describing how she became a street girl, a darling of the people, whose dead body was seen to show her as far older than her pretended age. Her original interlocutor Baroness de Simiane shows a prurient interest in the countess’s gossip, and eventually reappears as a nun who will take Renée into holy orders, but none of this works as theatre. The interaction between Judi Dench’s Madame de Montreuil and her daughters is very well done, as is the interaction with Fiona Button as the maid, and the costumes and sets designed by Christopher Oram are lovely. But without action there is nothing to hold our attention, and the only blessing is that it lasts no more than an hour and three quarters, without an interval. If there had been an interval the audience would very likely have diminished, and I’ve heard that Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike, who have the largest roles, are counting the days to the end of the run.
So why did they put this strange 1965 creation by Yukio Mishima, translated by Donald Keene, on stage? Apparently the director Michael Grandage found it fascinating, and having seen his recent work on Ivanov and Twelfth Night I was expecting something really engaging. But while de Sade himself may have appealed to masochists, I did not realise you had to be a theatrical masochist to sit through this stuff.