Posted at 13:39 on 20 Apr 2009 by Pandora / Blake
A few weeks ago I got an email from Abel and Haron, asking if Tom and I wanted to join them at the theatre to see Judi Dench in Michael Grandage's staging of Yukio Mishima's 1965 play, Madame de Sade. We accepted enthusiastically. Seeing lots of kinky friends and Judi Dench in one night? How could we refuse?
That Judi Dench was in it was pretty much the only thing I knew about Madame de Sade. And that it was about the infamous Marquis, of course, a character about whom I know surprisingly little given my predilections. I've never read any of his books, and most of my information has been gleaned in passing, and from Quills, that silly movie with the delicious costumes and disappointing whipping.
Madame de Sade is an interesting combination of minimalism and melodrama. It has six characters, all female, who converse in either dry, many-layered court conversation, or richly symbolic, floral poetic monologues. A hell of an acting challenge getting those to sound emotionally convincing while at the same time conveying all the levels of aesthetic and philosophical meaning the Japanese author had in mind. I missed at least half of them, but I could tell they were there, underneath an even dryer layer of intercultural references, arising from the translation into English of a Japanese play set in 18th century France.
The play takes place in a single, gilded, high-ceilinged room in a Parisian mansion. The staging was visually fantastic, but simple - the only furniture was three chairs, unless you count the enormous fabric galleons each of the characters carried around with them. It opens with a conversation between two acquaintances of Judi Dench's character, Madame de Montreuil, the mother-in-law of the infamous Marquis. Frances Barber plays the fictional Comtesse de Saint-Fond, a hedonistic courtesan who is supremely proud of her poor reputation, and describes the Marquis' sexploits with lascivious relish to the prurient Baronesse de Simiane, played by Deborah Findlay. The Comtesse illustrates her lavishly explicit descriptions with frequent swishings of her riding crop, and the comic contradiction between her companion's prim disgust and fascinated curiosity is well played.
It's a predictable, promising start, establishing the stylised dialogue and clash of moral philosophies which characterise the play. The six characters seem initially to be symbolic puppets, representing various positions in a debate on ethics of de Sade's behaviour. Little attempt is made to encourage suspension of disbelief; the play is aware of itself as an abstract, philosophical discourse rather than a realistic story.
After the opening scene, a screen falls across the stage to denote the passing of six years; a couple of scenes later we suddenly skip ahead another twelve years, landing us during the French Revolution. Between each section, passionate music accompanies storm-swept lighting effects and the frenzied galloping of horses. It's all a bit Wuthering Heights, an impression not helped by the curling script declaring "Six years later..." which is projected, silent-movie style, on the screen. The screen then lifts to reveal exactly the same actors, aged not a bit, in much the same postures as before, sporting slightly different dresses and hairstyles. The dresses and hairstyles become progressively more elaborate during the first half of the play, and then massively simpler in the last scene, to represent the Suffering of the Nobility during the Revolution, although there's still enough silk to clothe an elephant.
I think the artificiality of the costumes and unconvincing scene changes, much like the wooden, self-conscious gestures and delivery of the actresses in the opening scene, were deliberate. The stylised speech patterns draw both from French high court 18th century fashion and 1960s Japanese aesthetics. That the action takes place in a single room, almost a single moment, is significant to the play's role as a commentary on events, rather than a straightforward telling of them. The characters show an awareness of the implausible passing of time, in a series of almost-but-not-quite fourth wall moments: "I remember it like it was just yesterday!" they exclaim of a conversation that took place eighteen years ago in their timeline, but half an hour ago in ours. One speech (I think by Madame de Montreuil, but I'm not sure) went on about how time was a swallow flickering through the room; an illusion, whirling around them while they stayed in the same place.
Despite the lurid descriptions, Greek-chorus style, of extraordinary events that happen off-stage, the play contains remarkably little action. Apart from the Comtesse's brisk crop strokes, highly formal curtseys and fan work are about the extent of it. Not only does this physical constraint reflect on the mores of de Sade's time, but the contrast highlights the increasingly explicit experiences that the characters tell each other about.
Dench's performance was controlled and resonant, but understated; either showing her exhaustion or stepping back to so as not to overshadow Rosamond Pike, who dazzled in the starring role. As Clamorous Voice has pointed out, for a play with six strong, interesting female characters, Madame de Sade spectacularly fails the Bechdel test: the only thing they talk about is the Marquis de Sade, whom they mythologise in increasingly dramatic ways. As the play progresses, and their vision of him becomes more and more ridiculously, religiously theatrical, you start to realise that actually this isn't a play dominated by a man. Rather, the Marquis is defined by his absence; he is, in fact, a non-entity, a tool used by the women to flesh out (as it were) their own narratives. His pedestal becomes ever more precarious as their worship of him is gradually revealed to be objectification, and it's refreshing to see this dichotomy expressed, for once, through the female gaze.
The black humour of the play culminates in a hilariously ironic juxtaposition: Madame de Sade herself, played with conviction by Rosamond Pike, and whose changing verbal portraits of her husband reveal her own character more than anything about his, launches into a monologue where she describes the revelation that she experienced while reading his novel Justine. I haven't read it, but I suspect that this sensationally perverse book was largely written because the imprisoned Marquis was very bored. However, Madame de Sade finds in it the resolution of her own internal struggle between her Christian morality, and her devotion to her husband despite his incurable sinfulness. She uses Justine as evidence that her husband has built a "back stairway to heaven" (I sniggered); constructed an alternative route to God; achieved gnosis through his perversions. She creates a new vision of him as the most liberated individual in Creation, inventing a new mode of freedom from behind bars; and thereby achieves her own independence. Her soliloquy is accompanied by more of the histrionic sound and light effects which throughout the play have echoed around any speech that touches on the supernatural. She becomes ecstatic, elevated, framing her experiences with a new personal enlightenment even as she talks, still, only of her husband.
The spell is broken by a knock on the door. The Marquis, described in a dozen different terms by the women of the play but never seen on stage, is outside and craves entry. Charlotte, the stoic, opinionated family retainer, describes his ruined appearance. Madame de Sade tells her to send him away. The surface impression is that she is shallow, rejecting him on the basis of his alleged age and ugliness. But her character is too complex for such an analysis to stick. Rather I think that her husband's apotheosis, as she described it, was a projection of her own transformation.
The play began with a ritual burning of his portrait by the governors that could not find him to hang him. Portraits of the Marquis, throughout the play, are not about his person at all, but only a useful language for those who paint them.