Review – Madame de Sade, Donmar at the Wyndham’s Theatre

Wednesday 18 March 2009

madame-de-sade-donmar-west-endOh dear.

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:

27 Responses to “Review – Madame de Sade, Donmar at the Wyndham’s Theatre”

  1. Michael Hollick Says:

    Oh dear. A former amour who keeps me in tickets for the Donmar embarrassedly admitted that he had double-booked this and offered the ticket elsewhere. It looks like I’ve had a lucky escape, especially as I am still in line to see the wonderful Gillian Anderson in A Doll’s House in June.

    I am still tempted to try for a £10 standing place for this, though, just for the sake of curiosity. It’s either that or stay at home with a rice-flail and a copy of Justine…

  2. Peter Lindley Says:

    I’m sad to say that I experienced this as the most boring theatre I’ve seen for a long time. A waste of great acting talent – maybe I’m missing something? Some special effects including projection of clouds to signify time passing and amplification/distortion of actors voices that seemed more than a little corny and a very tedious script.

  3. Emilia Says:

    I fell fast asleep in Act 3 – despite sitting in possibly the most uncomfortable seat in the house (Balcony, A5 – the ‘sideways seat’). I had such high hopes too…

  4. Jon Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. A leaden script and uninspired direction, only livened up by some nice frocks and the odd well-delivered speech. The downside to the frocks was the interminable wait between acts while the cast threw on new wigs and dresses – some projected clouds and nondescript music weren’t enough to keep our attention. The script (or maybe the translation?) was pretty dreadful – I felt like I was being beaten over the head for two hours with repeated metaphors about blood, flowers and sunlight. The same problem with the lighting rig affected the Monday night preview too.

  5. you guys are killing me,
    this is to be my birthday treat! and i’m taking the silver-fox, who enjoyed Ivanov so much he nearly took his eyes off Kelly Reilly who was sitting six seats along from us.

  6. Uh oh. I’ve got a friend coming in from the US who I think already booked tickets.

    Maybe she can dump them on StubHub and see the felching twins at the Royal Court instead.

  7. Right, please contact me at if anybody wants my £26.50 ticket on 24/04. At least with Dido Queen of Carthage I was able to leave during the interval, but there’s no intervals here?

  8. Right, please contact me at if anybody wants my £26.50 ticket on 24/04. At least with Dido Queen of Carthage I was able to leave during the interval, but there’s no intervals here?
    P.S.: Wanted to mention good post!

  9. Can anyone tell me how Rosamund Pike’s performance was in the play?

    • Angela Young Says:

      She was astonishingly passionate … but it’s such a dreadful, turgid, ridiculously verbose play – all tell and absolutely no show at all – that I am amazed she managed to convey anything at all through the maze of words.

  10. Suzie Bee Says:

    “Madame de Sade fait qu’il dit sur la boîte” – shouldn’t this be “Madame de Sade fait ce qu’il dit sur la boîte”?

    Love from A. Pedant.

  11. Smudge Says:

    This review made me laugh so much. I was there on Monday night and I completely agree with everything. But I did think I was the only one who thought it was diabolical and it is a relief to know that other people thought so too although a great shame for the production especially as how often do you see an all female cast? So a great pity but what an unpleasant, boring play! And I completely agree about the translation. You would think that Grandage and the cast would have more sense than put it on/be in it. Do you think they read the play first? A case of the Emperor’s new clothes. I was tempted to guffaw at the same moments and the expressions of the cast at the curtain call were exactly as described. The noises and movements of the lights were chronic. Really disturbing and frightening…… and I would definitely have made a run for it if I’d been sitting underneath them. There was no apology for the appalling disruption they caused and I can’t believe it happened again on Tuesday! I heard one person ask for their money back but I was still speechless with shock and couldn’t bring myself to. Thank you for the reviews and all the posts plus the French and Saunders which is just the icing on the cake. This is the exact therapy I needed to recover from a really gruelling evening in the theatre! And as I went on my own and got a last minute return I had no one to compare notes until now except the person on the Whatsonstage messageboard who said it was ‘a joy to watch.
    Everyone was spellbound.’ My arse.

  12. Doug Says:

    The Emperor has no clothes — and you can see the whip-marks.

    What crap.

  13. JohnnyFox Says:

    Tonight’s ‘press night’ wasn’t much better. They gave Nick de Jong an aisle seat in about row F and he stayed till the end …

    When I momentarily awoke from a pleasant slumber there was some entr’acte tritsch-tratsch music and the thunder of hooves – what was that about, I thought I’d stumbled in to Equus The Musical ?

    Afterwards, the limited selection of celebrities (top layer already gone, mostly coffee creams and the nutty ones left) required all their reservoirs of acting talent to make polite comment to the production team. BAFTA to Penelope Wilton for breathlessly panting ‘It was BEAUTIFUL’ to all and sundry. Not clever, witty, funny, entertaining or even a moderate antidote to slumber … just ‘beautiful’.

    Others in attendance – Elena (Piaf) Roger who must have found it hard to follow, given that English is her third or fourth language, Sam West and – I said it was a slow night – UNA STUBBS.

  14. Cydny Says:

    I am sure that Judi Dench gave a wonderful performance on her part , it is so sad that the play is being so downthrodden. I was going to come to U.K. to see it just because of Judi and would still come to just see her.

  15. Jackie Says:

    I must have been at a different play! Despite the fact the understudy was a little flustered and fumbled quite a few of the lines I enjoyed it. Apparently Dame judi had tripped at the stage door but maybe she had seen these reviews and threw herself to the ground? Who knows, but a sprained ankle meant she is off til next week.

    i thought the acting was great. Yes, the play was too wordy and confused but all in all I prefered watching it to a glass of wine in front of the telly. Clearly not in the same league as Ivanov but I have had worse nights at the theatre.

  16. Aaron Embry Says:

    My name is Aaron Embry
    I thought you might be interested in seeing Yukio Mishima’s film
    “Yukoku-the Rite of Love and Death”
    with the original score I wrote.
    Watch the film here:

    Share your thought in the comments !

    Aaron Embry

  17. Jackie Says:

    Oh wow!

    Am pretty speechless. I hadn’t intended to watch the whole film but got sucked in and then couldn’t look away.

    Maybe thats exactly why madame de Sade is so wordy. Us creating the scenes in our own minds is always going to be more graphic and powerful. Lots of parallels between role of Japanese women and French aristos

    Your music was amazingly haunting. Its still swirling around my brian now as I type.

    Thank you for posting the link

  18. Karl Says:

    Your review completely reflects my experience on Friday night. Why on earth would anyone put this play on? The only thing that held my attention was watching to see when the understudy would next fluff her lines (her Dameness being laid up with a sprained ankle). Though at the end this meant that I was torn between my inclination to barely touch my hands together to signal my displeasure at the play and my in-bred British instinct to applaud the plucky stand-in.

  19. pb Says:

    I saw this today. Have to agree that the play is rather dull, but it is fantastic to look at. Dame Judi was using a stick on stage, and seemed slightly unwell (at one point she had to get a glass of water from offstage in midspeech, and towards the end some lines were rather lost in croakiness). Of course, she was still fantastic- a true professional. Also thought that Frances Barber was fantastic in a slightly panto way. Rosamund Pike seemed to have difficulty remembering her lines. That’s all.

  20. i’m playing catch up here, but i bought the tickets a year ago,for my birthday. i think i aged another year just watching this. the alarming thing is this may give some members of it’s audience the idea that this is what good theatre is all about! Merde

  21. Mike Says:

    The WEWs are compulsive reading and always good for a laff. But they can be wrong, especially when seeing early previews.
    Most people seem to have booked up because of Judi Dench being in the play, completely ignoring the fact that this is a play by Mishima about the Marquis de Sade – his name is even in the title so they can hardly be surprised that the subject is ‘difficult’, even ‘nasty’, and unlikely to appeal to Aunt Edna or even themselves. Caveat emptor!
    I have seen the play twice now (I take groups) and recommend it as thrilling theatre. I found the subject mesmerising and it leaves you with much to discuss afterwards (it is a formal discussion piece after all).
    Most of my group were well satisfied and found much of interest. On both occasions I have been, the theatre audience were very enthusiastic in their response, cheering at the curtain call. It creates a real buzz with only a minority looking glum – were they expecting lighter fare even though it’s about a sadist and from a playwright who commited hara-kiri?
    It is certainly not an easy play for cast or audience – the later performance I saw was better, ran more smoothly and the cast were more confident than on my first visit. I am just amazed that the critics were so ungenerous in their comments – subsequent internet postings have been more positive than the earlier ones, although most of the earlier comments were unfairly based on hearsay.
    I am saddened by so many negative and destructive attitudes. I hope readers here will go and make up their own minds and disregard the ‘ambulance chasers’ imploring “look away”. I shall certainly be going again and I look forward to then.

  22. Robert Says:

    What a waste of good talent and beautiful people.
    Nothing but monologues by ravished beauties
    but no real revelations
    The gay japanese playwright couldn’t have treated these women more cynically.
    Dear Lady Judy

  23. […] casting in their West End season – and what a horrible mistake to waste Judi Dench in that Mishima dog they put […]

  24. […] lesser-known works into the West End alongside the classics. Unfortunately, as many reviews have already said, this is not really a play that stands up to the exceptionally high standards already set by […]

  25. […] lesser-known works into the West End alongside the classics. Unfortunately, as many reviews have already said, this is not really a play that stands up to the exceptionally high standards already set by […]

  26. […] lesser-known works into the West End alongside the classics. Unfortunately, as many reviews have already said, this is not really a play that stands up to the exceptionally high standards already set by […]

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