With apple of the Whingers’ rheumy eyes and Knight-of-the-realm in waiting Michael Grandage at the helm and a Dame of the British Empire framed by the glorious proscenium arch of the Wyndham’s Theatre, what could possibly go wrong?
It should have served as something of a warning to the Whingers that Madame de Sade was written by Yukio Mishima whose own ritual disembowelment and decapitation (aka seppuku) was severely botched and mocked. Why did he do it? Perhaps he had been obliged to sit through his play once too often.
The Whingers now appreciate the importance of police stop-and-search tactics to reduce knife crime. The Met should go further and install large metal detectors at the entrance to the Wyndham’s Theatre as no sane person could be expected to sit through Madame De Sade with a knife about their person and not use it on themselves: the temptation to put oneself out of one’s misery through ritual self-disembowelment would be simply too great.
Madame de Sade fait qu’il dit sur la boîte, is about the wife of the Marquis de Sade (Rosamund Pike), her mother (Judi Dench) and several other women who knew the infamous French aristocrat. The Marquis doesn’t actually make an appearance: the action has already happened and the women just stand and sit around telling each other what happened. They talk some more six years later in Act 2. And in the final act they mostly fill in the last 12 years for you.
Or as even the programme notes admit:
…the narration is advanced by Racinian tirades – often lengthy descriptions given by a character of some event or perception. Mishima believed that the dialogue itself created the drama and that the brilliance of the costumes and the extravagance of the period would add the necessary visual appeal.
Well, on the former point Mister Mishima was clearly mistaken but there is no denying that it looks terrific. Designer Christopher Oram and wig supremo Richard Mawbey live up to their usual high standards, and despite some preview histrionics (of which more later) the lighting (Neil Austin) is highly atmospheric. It’s a shame that Grandage used a dreary 40-year-old translation (Donald Keene) but one suspects that if you translate tedium you generally end up with tedium.
There are plenty of spectacular frocks to admire – more enormous panniers than the Tour de France – big wigs and Japanese fans (geddit?) opened and wafted with relish, Madame de Sade (Rosamund Pike) is particularly good at this. The trouble is there’s a whiff of French and Saunders’ brilliant Dangerous Liasons parody about it. French aristocratic fan fluttering could surely never be taken seriously again after their cultural intervention.
The Comtesse de Saint-Fond (Frances Barber) displays impressive use of a riding crop, so it’s no surprise when she describes how she was stark naked and used as a table at one of the Marquis’ parties providing one of the few compelling scenes in the evening and giving the Whingers several ideas for their upcoming annual beano.
The thing is (spoiler coming), it seems most of them were in thrall to the Marquis. As the various tales of sexual degradation come tumbling out Phil feared de Sade’s mother-in-law (Dench) was going to spill her own carnal beans about her naked frolics as an armoire. There are so many tales of sexual decadence that Phil began to see it when it wasn’t there. Phil was forced to stifle his titters when Dame Judi proclaimed “This wasn’t the way I meant to rear my daughter!”
None of this is any fault of the cast, Pike is particularly impressive as de Sade’s devotedly masochistic wife (parallels with Mishima’s own wife who displayed surprising devotion despite his predilection for collecting homoerotic photographs of himself), Barber, Findlay and Dench are all perfectly fine although understandably the occasionally seem overwhelmed by the sheer number of words.
Mister Grandage has wisely opted to play Mister Mishima’s three-act play without an interval. Presumably any opportunity to leave would have been seized on by a sizeable number of people. Indeed, there have been reports of people making a run for it regardless.
Last night there were no such runners apart from Mr Grandage himself who kept having to run out to oversee a technical problem which was causing some of the lights to spin frantically and make the most alarming noises.
Madames Barber, Dench et all carried on regardless like the troupers they are despite the loud and rasping noises somewhat akin to farts. Perhaps it was someone in the gallery passing comment on the play?
The audience’s eyes turned upward to watch these alarming objects turning like dervishes and those underneath were clearly fearing for their lives. But there was at least some compensation that something was happening.
There was an oriental inscrutability to the casts expressions during the curtain call. It could have been unhappiness with the muted audience reaction (several in the front row had spent half the play reading their programmes from cover to cover) or perhaps their minds were planning some unspeakable degrading acts to inflict on the lighting engineers.
But what did it all mean? Severely distracted from the wearisome script by recalcitrant spotlights and billowing frocks the Whingers’ minds were apt to wander even more than usual. Mishima was clearly drawn to de Sade by his own interests in sex and pain and there seems to be a strange fascination, almost defence, of his leisure activities leading to some form of enlightenment.
Whatever it was about, it wasn’t the Whingers pannier at all – a major disappointment given the credentials of all involved. But then Mister Grandage has raised his own bar impossibly high. Having previously impressed with the Donmar’s West End season with Ivanov and Twelfth Night, not to mention last year’s The Chalk Garden at the mother ship of the Donmar itself (to name but three) why on earth did he pick this understandably rarely-staged play?
As an opportunity to explore the more crepuscular nooks of your own personal propensities it may just be the play for you.
But it is strictly for masochists only.
Here’s the French & Saunders sketch: