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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham's


  Deborah Findlay and Judi Dench/Ph: Johan Persson

If the golden boy of British theatre is to fall flat on his face, better he do so by being boldly unpredictable rather than by playing it safe. This might not excuse Michael Grandage's revival of Yukio Mishima's rarely performed, deeply peculiar play but it does provide a partially redeeming context, even if a cast including Judi Dench and Frances Barber can't save the result from appearing far more silly than it does serious.

Madame de Sade, written five years before Mishima committed ritual disembowelment in 1970, examines the long scrutinized figure of the Marquis de Sade from the perspective of various women in his life. Over three acts (and several long, suffocating years) his devoted wife Renee, his mother-in-law Madame de Montreuil, her second daughter Anne and various society ladies discuss the scandal and consequence of the Marquis' imprisonment for sodomy in 1772 and eventual release in 1790 as the clock marches inexorably towards the French Revolution. In other words it's all mouth and no trousers: the Marquis himself never appears, while the sadomasochistic sex at the core of the play is always off stage, filtered through the distancing, and prettifying, mechanism of image and recall as the women taunt each other and defend their various positions (absolute loyalty from Renee, scandalized outrage from Dench's granite-faced Montreuil and titillated amusement from Barber's frisky society courtesan Comtesse de Saint-Fond).

In the 1990s Ingmar Bergman directed what by all accounts was a very successful production of this curious psychosexual drama in New York. But what Grandage's beautifully staged mood-piece, soaked in shadow and the suggestion of blood, struggles to achieve is a persuasive dramatic tone. Partly the fault lies with a structure rigidly played out as a series of stultifying debates (Mishima acknowledged the play's debt to the Japanese theatre of Kabuki). Renee - played with a sterling combination of high-minded purity and determined defiance by the wonderful Rosamund Pike - defends to the death her wifely devotion to her husband and his ferocious erotic appetites- for her duty itself almost seems to resemble an erotic fetish. But the suggestion she represents the face of female emancipation liberated from the corseted convention of morally sanctimonious France is clearly ridiculous: it's not her desires she's serving but his. Much more dubiously, Mishima never considers the flipside of sado-masochism as a form of tyranny: what about the many poor women the Marquis marched off the street and into his blood-soaked bed?

All this talk fetishising pain merely leaves sadomasochism itself languishing in the realm of abstract aesthetic. Certainly both play and production present sadomasochism almost as a creative act Renee, Anne and Saint-Ford each elevate their pornographic experiences through the language of high art. Yet this results in an abundance of dodgy metaphors and images about the exquisite nature of pain and evil: at one point Grandage even bathes the stage in red as Pike reaches a state of transcendent ecstatic remembrance. In short it's tosh, torturous for all the wrong reasons. And you suspect Pike and Dench, trapped in their bosom-punishing frocks and unforgiving wigs, know it.


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