The fact that a male Japanese playwright became intrigued by the life of the Marquis de Sade and chose to present it from the perspective of women closest to him whet my interest in Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade, now playing at London’s Wyndhams Theatre. Perhaps it was an attempt to demolish the indulgent misogynist from a proto-feminist vantage, I wondered? How interesting.
Well no, actually. Notwithstanding the fact that Judi Dench and the lovely Rosamund Pike play the starring roles, Madame de Sade is a ridiculous and (what is worse) an uninteresting play.
It really is ridiculous. For a start, the characters narrate background facts about the Marquis de Sade’s various scandals in an annoyingly didactic way while pretending to be in ordinary conversation. And then periodically, one or other of them – Pike’s Madame de Sade or her sister Anne (Fiona Button) or their dissolute acquaintance, the Comtesse de Saint-Fond (Frances Barber) – launch into soliloquies about epiphanies they’ve experienced while contemplating the Marquis’ deeds. Some of them decide that they are the Marquis in some mystical, glorious fashion, or that his evil is holiness and at one with the universe, or that he is building a light from filth and a back stairway to heaven: yes, the talk really is as breathless as this, only it goes on much longer. The script is so full of avant-garde posturing my muscles ache just thinking about it.
There was also a strange disconnect between the characters throughout the play, which may it clear that Mishima, that deeply troubled playwright, was essentially uninterested in the relationships between them. Far from presenting an empathetic feminine perspective, he doesn’t appear to have cared about the women in the play at all. They are simply there to be mouthpieces for his views, props for his own confused insights about sadism, beauty, pain, &c &c &c – the very antithesis of a proto-feminist approach.
This disconnect between the characters was most apparent in the case of Judi Dench’s Madame de Montreuil, mother to the Madame de Sade. Her character is yet another crotchety dowager, much like her Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. The Madame de Montreuil is constantly scheming to save the family’s name or her daughter’s virtue: motivated by self-interest, but genuinely affronted by her son-in-law’s corruptions. While other characters speak beatifically about their love-making with him, however, or while yet another preposterous soliloquy about the sacredness of profanity is offered in her presence, this dowager stands woodenly about on the stage, as if somehow unable to hear. Her next lines are delivered almost as if oblivious to what happened just before them.
There is nothing terrible about her performance – this is Judi Dench we’re talking about, after all, and I am grateful for the chance to have seen her. But her character is so hopelessly stiff, and was so evidently of little interest to the playwright himself, that there is nothing to love about it either.
Perhaps some of this sourness on my part is the curmudgeonly jet-lag talking. Admittedly, I saw the play through a fog of sleep-deprivation. And there were other people around me making positive noises among themselves once the curtain went down. The production is well-acted, with a fabulous cast, and sumptuous to look at. But really, I tell you, I’m shocked that this ‘little-seen’ play (as the publicity describes it) was here given the light of day.
Madame de Sade plays at Donmar at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London, until 23 May 2009.
The above image comes from skyARTS.