The third play in Donmar West End’s current season at Wyndhams Theatre is Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima. It is translated from the Japanese by Donald Keene and directed by Michael Grandage. It stars Judi Dench as the Marquis de Sade’s mother-in-law - but the best performances come from Frances Barber and Rosamund Pike.
The story spans 18 years before the French revolution and looks at de Sade and his influence from the perspective of several women who represent differing points of view about his behaviour. His wife – the character played by Rosamund Pike - remains loyal to both him and what he does throughout. It is only at the end of the play – when, having been released from prison, he returns to her family home – that she rejects him. Perhaps the reality of an aged dissolute being is less attractive than the intellectual concept of what he could be and the behaviour he stands for.
There is little action but much discussion in the play – or rather there is less discussion than there is a series of monologues. The views of the religious and sybaritic (the Comptesse de Saint-Fond; played superbly by Frances Barber) are presented, as are the views of the innocent, complicit and manipulative. Sadein practices are described rather than seen – somewhat in style of Greek tragedy.
The proletariat – in the guise of the servant Charlotte – is always in the background; until the denouement, that is, when we get an idea that the guillotine may beckon for some. Charlotte is a character of few words, but eloquent body language, and is brought to life convincingly in Jenny Galloway’s performance.
There are three acts, played without an interval, and a single set, which is an 18th century room. It is superbly lit throughout, showing different seasons of the year and providing an animated backdrop for – not only the action before us – but also the actions and emotions and events that are being described. In many ways the set and lighting are perhaps the true stars of the show.
This is a production that requires concentration and involvement. Neither its physical beauty (great though it is) nor the fine performances of all the actors (as good as they are) is enough to sustain an audience’s interest for the hour and forty-five minutes Madame de Sade lasts.
Plays until 23rd May