15 March 2009

Madame de Sade - Donmar Theatre @ Wyndhams - Friday 13th March 2009


Against her mother's wishes, Renee remains vehemently devoted to her husband, the Marquis de Sade, the notorious aristocrat imprisoned in the Bastille for his lurid escapades and licentious behaviour.

Judi Dench ( Madame Montreuil)
Rosamund Pike (Renee)
Frances Barber (Comtesse de Saint-Fond)
Fiona Button (Anne)
Deborah Findlay (Baronesse de Simiane)
Jenny Galloway (Charlotte)

Well, I suppose even the Dame can be unlucky sometimes in her choice of work. Quite why one of the greatest and shiniest jewels of our stage chose this to appear in I can’t really fathom – unless she thought it would be “different”. And “different” it certainly is. Written by a Japanese chap apparently in homage to Racine, the French playwright, translated into English by a speckky academic and dealing with the life of the infamous Marquis de Sade, this isn’t so much a play as a series of tableux vivants – long, mostly static, detailed, declamatory speeches reporting the action in retrospect. That, I suppose, is why I had such trouble finding a synopsis of the play – nothing happens in it. It merely reports what has happened to the characters – they just stand around discussing it. For an hour and three quarters. With no interval. There was minimal direction – or perhaps micro-direction is a better phrase. I really don’t think it was what the vast majority of the audience were expecting – in fact, there were a couple of walk-outs. From a Judi Dench performance! Off with their heads!

Still, my buttocks were quite in sympathy – it really was a very long hour and three quarters, even for a Judi-Freak like me. The translation (forty years old – why no new translation?) was very turgid, and long sections of it sounded like they had been translated literally from the original and just slapped into the script with a Pritt Stick. It says something about the text when the most fun you get out of the evening is from admiring the costumes for a couple of minutes and then watching the lighting changes. Because otherwise there is really very little to enjoy here except for the Judi Diehards and possibly the Racine Diehards. And even the Judi Diehards would have to admit that, at last night’s performance, The Dame was not on top form. Several times she tripped over words and entire phrases, and at one point, imitated Eric Morecambe in the famous Andrew Preview sketch – she said all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. Maybe she’s like me; when I learn words for a show, I tend to link the text to the direction – and find it incredibly difficult to remember words when I’m anchored to the spot doing nothing for long stretches. But here she seemed to be fumbling for her words and consequently was unable to give the “performance” we were all expecting.

The costumes, it has to be said, were magnificent, and would have done Marie Antoinette proud. Spot on historically, beautiful and sumptuous and, cleverly, all colour-co-ordinated with each other and the lighting. Part of me wants to be of the opinion that they were all co-ordinated with the text as well – warm golds, bronzes and coppers for the first act when the French aristocrats are all bathing in the sunlight of their own self-importance, soft springtime greens and pinks in the second as, unbeknown to them, a new social order is born around them, and cold blues and greys in the third as the chill winds of Revolution blow, touched with the blade of ice that is Madame Guillotine. The only “off” point I would mention is that during the first act, The Dame was wearing an evening gown while her guests were in day dress, which looked a bit odd. And when Frances Barber made her appearance in Act 2, her enormous Marge Simpson wig was completely unadorned, where it should have sported feathers or flowers or pearls or all three. In fact, it wouldn't have been historically inaccurate to have her wig topped off with a bird cage containing finches.

The lighting was very, very effective, giving the kind of effect you get on a sunny day when a brisk wind is hurling scraps of cloud across the sun – from brightness you are plunged into sudden brief spells of darkness. And unless there was something wrong with my hearing, there was an effective sound plot as well – on occasion, speeches seemed to have a metallic echo to them. The set was the sort of thing you see so often these days - angled mirrored walls covered in tarnished and peeling silver - in fact, much like the set from the Meniere's A Little Night Music.

Audience reaction at the end of the evening was very muted, and its not difficult to see why. I think the play alienated a lot of people with its formality and lack of action and, although the pro reviews have yet to appear, predict that they will reflect this disappointment. Still reeling from the fall-out surrounding the reviews of The Taming of the Shrew, I now find myself wondering whether The Dame will be sending me malicious emails. Hope so – I’m used to being abused by old queens, but to be abused by an old Dame will be a completely different experience.

I did have a rather po-faced clip of an interview with the author here, but reading the "West End Whingers" review of Madame De Sade reminded me of the brilliant French and Saunders skit on "Dangerous Liaisons" (which they compared MDS to, so I've replaced it!)

19th March: reviews just in.







02 March 2009

Duet for One - Almeida Theatre, Monday 2nd March 2009


Stephanie Abrahams, a brilliant concert violinist, who seemingly has it all, is forced to re-evaluate her life when struck down by an unforeseen tragedy. Faced with a truth too difficult to comprehend she consults psychiatrist Dr Feldmann and through a series of highly charged encounters is led to examine her deepest emotions and finally to consider a future without music.


Dr. Feldmann - Henry Goodman
Stephanie Abrahams - Juliet Stevenson

On the face of it, a play about the emotional, psychological and physical ravages of MS, that uninvited guest which destroys so many lives, doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good night out. But I haven’t stood up to deliver my applause at the end of a show since last January’s The Magic Flute at the Young Vic – and that, Dear Reader, shows just how discriminating I can be when I have to. Those who would accuse me of not knowing what good theatre is should know that I don’t stand up for rubbish – unless its to make a quick exit as soon as the curtain falls on the first act (cough). But you couldn’t have dragged me away from this play during the interval without pointing a gun at my head and threatening to cut off my Bunty subscription – and even then I think I might have taken the risk and stayed put. Sod Bunty – this is good. No, its not good – its fantastic. Rarely have 2 ½ hours in the theatre slipped by so fast as they did last night.

OK, I hold my hands up and state in advance that Juliet Stephenson is very definitely a member of my TWCDNW (They Who Can Do No Wrong) club – for chrissakes, I once saw her play Hedda Gabler (regrettably not in Helsingborg) and make it funny. But if her performance in Duet for One doesn’t win her a double armful of awards, then there is no God. Every nuance, every pause, every look is perfectly judged and slotted into place here and creates an entire jigsaw that glitters like a black diamond. Critics have sometimes been of the opinion that she can overdo the “snot and slobber” during her more emotional moments, but in this piece, every dribble is full of real pain and is completely justified. Particularly “real” is her physicality – the awkward placing of a leg, the fall that you don’t see coming, the hand that stutters as it reaches for a glass.

On the opposite side of the coin is Henry Goodman as Dr. Feldmann, who gives a performance of complete gravitas and calm; even when sitting silent and completely still, he completely inhabits the role and gives it reality. He also displays a great sense of comic timing and the ability to almost throw a line into the air like a piece of invisible thread, then draw it tight like a lasso around his unsuspecting victim. In fact, both Stephenson and Goodman spend the entire evening playing Spider and Fly with each other - but so well do they work together that its never quite certain which is the spider and which the fly at any given moment.

The direction was, frankly, astounding. There’s very little physical action – most of the time he sits in his chair, she opposite him in the wheelchair. By rights, this should become very tiring and very boring extremely quickly. But here’s the genius of it – it doesn’t. It serves only to make the situation more real. I never thought that watching two people sitting down and talking to each other could be so riveting. The direction here is in the glances, the empty silences, the actual lack of physical movement. The only time when I thought the direction slightly forced was during Stephenson’s last big speech, when she hauls herself up out of the wheelchair and, using a walking stick, totters to the bookcase and hangs on to it like grim death. It smacked a little of that “Joan of Arc” moment you find in plays like this – the final denouncement, the valedictory paragraph where everything is wrapped up and tidied away, the rally to battle against dark forces. If I’d been directing, I’d have had Stephenson totter in the other direction and stand looking out of the window, perhaps leaning heavily on the frame, like a prisoner looking through the bars at a golden world she will never inhabit again, turning her back on her jailer yet ensuring that he knows every word is a shot fired in his direction. Dammit, I missed my calling.

The set was wonderful – a scholarly, masculine room with bookshelves that you really wanted to rummage around on. It was beautifully but simply lit, with afternoon light pouring through wooden Venetian blinds onto a parquet floor. Through the window was a hint of a slightly overgrown garden – a wilderness held at bay by reason and logic. It was interesting to note that Stephenson starts the play quite formally dressed in plain shirts and dark trousers but, as her character’s physical condition deteriorates, her clothes became more floral, as if she’s leaving this ordered and tidy world behind and becoming more and more a creature of the primitive jungle outside the room. Oh well, that’s my theory anyway.

What I don’t have a theory for is quite why the audience was so badly behaved during the performance. This is Islington, for chrissakes – people here should be used to going to the theatre. Its not like going to see Oliver! where the majority of the audience think its acceptable to talk to each other, text their friends, sing along or make cooing noises at the pigeon they've brought in under their cloth cap because its got a touch of croup and can't be left in t'loft on its own in t'dark, Moother. Yet one chap was yawning very, very audibly, which is incredibly disrespectful to the actors and bloody annoying for others in the audience. After Stephenson’s first exit, some old cow behind us and somewhere to the left thought it necessary to comment loudly on psychiatric practice – “You shouldn’t touch the patient, you shouldn’t touch the patient, Polly wants a cracker”. OK, I put that last bit in for comic effect. After the interval, during a really quiet scene, some fool in the row behind gleefully started scraping the last dregs of his ice cream out of the tub with the little plastic spoon and making num num num lipsmacking noises like it was Going Home Time at nursery school. Even after I’d shusssssssh’d him loudly (and my shussssssssh’s can get very loud when I choose to make them so), he carried on unconcernedly rattling away in a “Hang on a minute while I just get this very last little bit out” kind of way. Honestly, you can’t take some people anywhere.

What the critics thought:

(I think its worth noting that, desp

ite extensive searching, I couldn’t find a review for this production that didn’t give it less than four stars. Nicholas de Jongh, who hates practically everything and everybody, gave it five. For once, I’m in complete agreement with the man)






Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow in the film version of "Duet for One" - probably a lot sparser on laughs than the Almeida production