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May 20, 2009

David Womersley endures excruciating theatre: Madame de Sade - Yukio Mishima

Posted by David Womersley

Yukio Mishima's Madame de Sade
directed by Michael Grandage, translated by Donald Keene
Wyndham Theatre, London
13 March - 23 May 2009

There are two myths about the Marquis de Sade, and one truth. The two myths are, on the one hand, that of the existential hero described by Simone de Beauvoir in "Faut-il brûler Sade?", and on the other, that of the Enlightenment satirist who was fully aware of the repugnancy of his fictions, and who expected his reader to be so, too - a myth peddled by his latter-day moralistic apologists.

The one truth, however, is that de Sade was a nasty trifler whose unreadable, obsessive, writings attract those weak souls who are too timid to do anything more than read about the depravities to which they are furtively drawn.

Unsurprisingly, then, de Sade seems to have appealed to the suicidal fantasist, Yukio Mishima, who of course eventually did have the guts (probably a tactless metaphor, but let it stand) to act out his fantasies, and whose Madame de Sade is little more than a thin dramatisation of the analysis in de Beauvoir's essay, first published in Les temps modernes of 1951 and 1952.

This production is a perfect case of titillation. The Donmar announces that its run at The Wyndham is to include a play exploring the sexual deviancy of the Marquis de Sade. It begs the question, how could this be stageable? Anticipation gathers when it is revealed that Rosamund Pike and Judi Dench are to take the leading roles - faces more at home in Bond movies and period pieces than depictions of sexual depravity (though that scene of M running a bath in Quantum of Solace is pretty near the knuckle).

But, like most titillation, the performance does not deliver. Set between the Marquis' arraignment in 1772 and his release from prison in 1790, Yukio Mishima's script frames five women as they discuss Sade's antics over three acts. The man in question is never seen. Renée, his wife, remains surprisingly, but resolutely, faithful until a sudden reversal. Her younger sister doubles up as confidante and his eager servant. Two noblewomen punctuate the tetchy talk with anecdote and moral judgment. Renée's mother disapproves. And that is it.

The result is woeful drama. Stock roles (Mishima has each character represent certain qualities in the style of a mystery play – Dench for example moves not far from her comfort zone as "Law" and "Morality") are made all the more tedious through a clunking script, insensitively translated by Donald Keene (although one senses somehow that the original Japanese also lacked subtlety). Even Pike's undeniable poise and the occasional glimpse of her familiar form fail to salvage the lines she is dealt, while Dench's occasional stumbling speaks for itself.

The dialogue suffers from laboured repetition (in particular, endless reiteration about the passage of time - if only time were passing, one thought to oneself), and an embarrassing frequency of metaphors used to decorate the chatting. Worst of all, Renée is given to philosophical justification of sadistic practice. Doing it is bad enough, but talking about it afterwards is more than cruel.

The stage dynamic created through long speeches might have provoked interesting questions about the way in which Mishima's characters are called upon to respond to events which have happened in the past (almost nothing takes place onstage), but the script falls short of this, and well short of credible exchange.

Some have admired the set and costumes. Stephanie Arditti's feast of crinoline set against the backdrop created by Christopher Oram is indeed an impressive spectacle - at least for the first act. But with each scene change, Pike and Dench's frocks become a slightly different tone, cast in slightly bluer lighting. This does not amount to progress. Aren't such comments about luxurious visuals how we explain away vacuous period drama? All surface, no substance. The difference is that when we are watching Keira Knightley in The Duchess, more is neither expected nor wanted.

The use of a single setting unwittingly lends the drama's exits and entrances an air of farce; another visit from the Comtesse de Saint-Fond (played with energy, albeit predictably by a cruelly typecast Frances Barber), another sexy tit-bit. She confides with glee how the Marquis used her body as an altar in a blasphemous travesty of the Mass, as Baronesse de Simiane tries to conceal her utter fascination. But rather than providing an exciting friction between the domestic façade and what has reportedly gone on behind closed doors, these tales just sound unconvincing. This is not to say we doubt the divine Marquis's zeal for fetishism, but rather to record that we feel let down by the fact that the characters are so crudely drawn.

Michael Grandage's confused production has tarnished his run of success, which includes Twelfth Night and Ivanov. One leaves the theatre having confronted the proximity of pleasure and pain, though in an unexpected way. It is bewildering that a play so excruciating has won a place in what has been otherwise a season of sheer dramatic delight. Still, as de Sade himself said, there is no pleasure greater than an aversion overcome. London's theatre-goers have been given a wonderful opportunity to taste new, unanticipated, but intense pleasures - if they so choose.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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