Theatre Review: Madame De Sade @ Wyndham's Theatre

By Zoe Craig Last edited 118 months ago
Theatre Review: Madame De Sade @ Wyndham's Theatre
Judi Dench leads a fantastc cast in Madame De Sade. Photo by Hugo Glendinning

It's not often you get to hear Dame Judi Dench's instantly recognisable throaty tones describe an orgy.

To listen to that famous voice describe, in intricate detail, how her character's daughter (Rosamund Pike) allowed herself to be hung from a chandelier by her husband, in a room of naked prostitutes, and have a manservant lick off the blood and sweat and semen and everything else that was running over her skin, while the husband whipped him.

But then Madame De Sade, the latest choice by the award-winning artistic director of the Donmar, Michael Grandage, is quite an unusual play.

It was written in the 1960s by Mishima, a Japanese playwright (who killed himself in ritual suicide), with a taste for Racine. It tells the 18th-century story of the Marquis De Sade (you know, malicious pervert and prolific sexual deviant, or existentialist philosopher depending on where you're standing) from the different viewpoints of six women.

There's Judi, the Marquis' mother-in-law (Madame de Montreuil) who stands for law, society and religion; Ros Pike plays the eponymous, devoted wife; her little sister, Anne (Fiona Button), stands for guilelessness and lack of principles. Madame de Simiane (Deborah Findlay) represents religion; Madame de Saint-Ford (Frances Barber) takes the part of carnal desires. And a servant represents what Jarvis would call the Common People.

It opens like an 18th-century episode of Sex and the City. Here's prim-and-proper Charlotte (Mme de Simiane) being shocked at sexpot Samantha's (Mme de Saint-Ford) escapades. Later there are questions about what love feels like; what a woman should be prepared to do for her man. In short, it's women, talking, endlessly, about sex, and men, and life, and men, and more sex.

And like Sex and the City, there's an all-important "look". The costumes are some of the most beautiful things we have ever seen on stage.

The women parade around Christopher Oram's tarnished gilt set in the most breathtaking layered skirts, flowing over wide panniers; bell-shaped jewel-encrusted sleeves create sparkles of excitement around the actresses' arms and hands, which are ready, at any moment of tension, to open their fans and flutter. High wigs with feathers and beautifully adorned hats provide a great deal of gorgeous things to look at on stage, which is a good thing.

Because listening to the endless torrent of words about all this (ahem) action, with no real, err, action, feels like a kind of sadistic torture.

Mishima's Madame De Sade, despite the exciting, scandalous story behind it, is little more than drama as discussion.

It's wordy, it feels long (no interval the night we saw it), it's relentless, and to our (modern) minds, it's bordering on preposterous. And even with each of those amazing actresses doing their fabulously talented best to represent their characters' staunch viewpoints to the end, it's sort of dull.

As the language, translated by Donald Keene grows more and more outlandish (no sniggering please, when devoted wifey has to say the Marquis "has built a back stairway to heaven"), and goes around a ceaseless circle of bloody metaphors (roses as blood, moonlight as blood), followed by more moral, philosophical and religious questioning, we're afraid our concentration started drifting. Not as far as the chap in front, who twice drifted... sleepwards.

Judi herself stumbled over a few of her lines. Forgivable, we say, when the script is so endlessly wordy, so surprisingly forgettable.

"No woman," cries Madame De Sade, "has ever been deceived by a man." We can only surmise that these girls all know they're in a bit of a dud play, then, even if Mr Grandage was deceived in Mr Mishima.

Madam De Sade by Yukio Mishima, translated from the Japanese by Donald Keene is part of the Donmar West End season. It's playing at Wyndham's until 23 May. Tickets from £10. Box Office: 0844 482 5120

Last Updated 20 March 2009