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.








JohnnyFox said...

Your reference to Marie Antoinette suggests there's a far better play to be written imagining an encounter between her and the Marquis de Sade, perhaps suggesting roleplay to relieve her boredom in the Petit Trianon and finding Maggie Gyllenhall-esque usages for those Limoges milking pails and yoke ... I'm on a roll, now.

Oh dear, it all sounds rather taxing. I'd better take my knitting to Wednesday's Press Night. Still, good to know it'll be over by 8.45, I'll be home for Desperate Housewives and so, I suspect, will Judi.

Anonymous said...

Good review man, pretty much describes exactly what I was thinking when I saw this. A very unfortunate misstep after the brilliance the Donmar produced with Ivanov and the Twelfth Night.

Ikky said...

Although everything you say is technically true, i feel that this play is being misjudged. I thought that the same tedium it is accused of very carefully mimics the tedium that sets in when reading the Marquis' own works. Only after the initial excited revoltion has given way to nausea and then indifference can one truly see the what he is concerned with, and here i feel the play achieved something similar.
I enjoyed this production immensely, and thought it richer for the scope of woman it portrayed. The Marquis was never going to be very entertaining.