9/04/09, Donmar at Wyndhams
An elaborate and wordy defence of sado-masochism by Yukio Mishima, whose credentials for writing it include his later ritual suicide. Starring, of all people, Judy Dench and Rosamund Pike (whom I think of as rather virginal, but who has apparently played a Bond villainess, as well as Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice and is considered "hot" in certain quarters).
What were the Donmar thinking of? And what did the audience (elderly Dench fans, Donmar loyalists, foreign tourists) make of it?
Three scenes, 18 years apart, from 1772 to 1790 and the onset of the French Revolution. Mme de ade (Pike) and her mother (Dench) discuss her reprobate husband, who is always in and out of prison and never seen, along with her sister (Fiona Button, who reminded me of a former colleague who insisted on playing the ingenue well into middle age), servant and two acquaintances (one, a female roue, played with thigh-slapping relish and fine comic timing by Frances Barber).
The frocks were gorgeous. The set was a chilly stateroom in some mansion, the walls silver, onto which were projected at certain moments images (blood, the moon, snow-covered branches): a nice touch. From time to time the women would recall some vivid memory, at which point their voices would echo and the stage would fill with appropriate sounds. You couldn't fault the production, by Michael Grandage. The performances were fine: S said she thought Pike was "just saying the words" much of the time, but I thought that judgement harsh because they were all just saying the words at least part of the time, with the exception of Barber and the servant (who had little to say).
The problem was the play. Mishima tries to explain the inexplicable, and to justify it. Sado-masochism is irrational and (literally) perverse: that there are people who are drawn to it is unarguable, but that the attraction can be explained through rayional discourse is asking too much. Mishima of course fails, taking refuge in flights of unconvincing rhetoric and rather chilly dialogue. He throws in a few (positively 18th century) dramatic twists in token acknowledgement that this is a play, not an essay, but they do not convince (at the start of one act Mme de Sade's sister runs on with a letter announcing that de Sade has been pardoned by royal warrant; several minutes into the scene it then transpires that the letter is months old; a little while longer and it emerges that de Sade was rearrested immediately, of all of which his wife has of course been ignorant; so we get three sets of reactions from her, the first two on false dramatic pretences).
But it got us talking afterwards. S confided that she'd tried to read the Story of O and failed, and could not understand these poor, benighted women. (I have read it, and I can't understand the women either, but that doesn't mean I don't find the whole subject fascinating.)
We stood in the street discussing why de Sade in his day was considered as big a threat to the social order as the Revolution, with which he was quite erroneously identified (the Revolution had a positive prospectus until it went off the rails with Robespierre, who was perhaps a sadist; de Sade had no manifesto except his own perverse pleasure). And we talked of other representations of de Sade, in the Marat Sade and in the film Quills, where he was played by Geoffrey Rush and made palatable according to A because Rush is so charming. And we discussed Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which had something in common with Madame de Sade (period, frocks, a lot of talking) but succeeded far better according to S because of the erotic charge in the stage version between Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.
So maybe this play wasn't such a turkey after all.