The Donmar West End season continues with the Judi Dench-led, West End premiere of Mishima’s Madame De Sade.
Madame De Sade is one of those plays where a lot happens while not a lot is happening. Spanning nearly 20 years, the entirety of the play takes place in one room in the home of Madame de Montreuil, the mother in law of the Marquis de Sade. The infamous Frenchman’s imprisonment and personal peccadilloes are discussed and explored by a group of six women, yet the man himself is never seen.
Not witnessing his actions first hand offers the audience a chance to explore them from different perspectives: that of the pious, religious Baronesse de Simiane, who, against all her better judgment can’t help but be intrigued by the details of his case; the Comtesse de Saint-Fond, a high-class courtesan lusting after the peaks of pleasure the Marquis has scaled; the devoted wife of the title; and her devoted mother.
Without seeing any action, the piece is all talk; an exploration of the Marquis’s life from varied viewpoints, but also a study in devotion and how a woman so apparently mistreated, could stay happily committed to the man who abused her. Mishima’s text, translated from Japanese by Donald Keene, is florid and poetic, full of the imagery of blood and sex that reflects the Marquis’s major interests. Even Christopher Oram’s set is symbolic, the vast, towering opulent room – the walls of which periodically host theme-reflecting projections – tarnished, the grandeur hidden behind rust.
Dench’s face dominates the show’s poster as the star casting in this, the third production of the Donmar’s hugely impressive West End season. Her Madame de Montreuil is a caring mother, concerned for the sanity of her daughter yet tempered with concern for the family name. Rosamund Pike is breathily passionate in her portrayal of the title character, whose belief in devotion to her husband is pushed to the very limits. But it is Frances Barber, whip in hand, who catches the eye, reveling in the role of the courtesan, rolling the salacious details of the Marquis’s exploits around her mouth and savouring every last drop of bloody detail as though it were one of his very special sweets.