Theatre Review: ‘Madame de Sade’, 29th March 2009

I have a slight fascination with the Marquis de Sade, not quite sure why as the idea of doing that sort of thing creeps me out but for some reason good ol’ Donatien Alphonse Francois holds that certain draw for me. When I was about fifteen a friend loaned me a copy of his biography, and I was surprised to discover a host of equally fascinating characters from his life, such as his wife who stood by him through everything and his mother-in-law who for support of her daughter spent countless time trying to keep the Marquis out of prison… of course she made sure he spent most of his life in a mental hospital but that was the done thing in those days.

In December last year I saw that the Donmar Warehouse were doing a London season at the Wyndham’s Theatre, the plays were ‘Twelfth Night’ staring Derek Jackobi, ‘Madame de Sade’ staring Judi Dench and ‘Hamlet’ staring Jude Law. I’m a huge fan of ‘Twelfth Night’ and I was a bit torn between seeing that or ‘Madame de Sade’ but I decided I’d seen quite a few productions of ‘Twelfth Night’ (and I’d much rather see the RSC do it) whereas ‘Madame de Sade’ sounded like a fascinating play and right up my alley.

So on a slightly dull looking Sunday in March I headed into Central London looking like I was wearing my school uniform (I left school quite some time ago but I look a bit ridiculous in a suit) and off to the Wyndham’s Theatre. I’d heard a few days before that Judi Dench had, had a fall at stage door and had to briefly pull out of the run so I wasn’t expecting to see her in the play but that was okay since she wasn’t the main attraction for me; also the play had received less than stellar reviews so my expectations weren’t too high.

As it happened, Judi Dench was there hobbling around with a walking stick but sadly she couldn’t save the play from itself. I’ve never seen anything or read anything written by Yukio Mishima but I’m not in a hurry to do so after seeing this; all content and no substance. Lots, and lots and lots of endless duologues that move into even more endless monologues. Talking back and forth but without actually anything being said.

In this case there was a lot of describing of some of the Marquis’s sex practices with the characters set up not as characters but as representations of attitudes. Madame de Sade (played brilliantly by Rosamund Pike) = devotion, Madame de Montreuil ( a wonderful Judi Dench) = law, society and morality, Madame de Simiane (very well played by Deborah Findlay) = religion (which you’re hit over the head with when she’s later revealed on stage as a nun), Comtesse de Saint-Fond (possibly the best character, fantastically played by Frances Barber) = carnal desires (she later dies after being trampled in the streets and is mistaken for a lower-class whore before they discover she was a member of the aristocracy) and finally Anne, Madame de Sade’s younger sister who apparently stood for feminine guileless and lack of principles – her character and that of Charlotte, the maid, I felt were redundant as they didn’t bring anything extra to the party but were both played well by Fiona Button and Jenny Galloway.

The acts of the Marquis and the various scandals unfolding from them are reduced to nothing more than boring asides to give the ‘characters’ the chance to discuss their own nature and attitude towards the topic. The play could have benefited from some serious re-writing as to be honest it all got a bit patronising with the obvious theme of strong women, the writer seemed to very much miss the point that in order to have strong women they must appear strong for the majority of the piece and not just when they get to the dramatic part of their monologue! In real life Madame de Montreuil was a powerful and formidable woman but in this piece she is reduced to asking complete strangers for help in getting her son-in-law pardoned and then changing her mind for a not exactly clear reason and going off and doing it herself.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as I’ve said the acting was brilliant and it was quite nice to see an all-female cast doing a prominent piece in a London season, the lighting was beautiful and the set suited the piece very well in that it dominated the stage without oppressing it. There was some interesting projection but it was so underused it might not have been there and the sound design was very nice, but I’m not sure about the echo that was added to the dramatic bits of dialogue.

Overall, I’m not disappointed I went but I was certainly very underwhelmed by the whole experience and I think it’s one of those rare times where the production was let down by the play and not the other way around.

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