Following the lavish praise and multiple awards that greeted both Ivanov and Twelfth Night, the hotly-anticipated third instalment of the Donmar's season at the Wyndham's theatre opened to critics last night (18 March 2009, previews from 13 March).
Directed by Michael Grandage (who also helmed Ivanov and Twelfth Night) and starring an all-female cast including Judi Dench, Rosamund Pike, Frances Barber and Deborah Findlay, Madame de Sade centres on five women affected by the infamous debauchery of the Marquis de Sade, including his wife and mother. It continues to 23 May and is followed by Jude Law's turn as Hamlet, also directed by Grandage.
“A severe disappointment” was the verdict of Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, and most of his critical peers were in agreement. Having enjoyed so many plaudits in recent months, this morning's largely poor notices mark something of a crash back down to earth for Michael Grandage. It wasn't all bad, a few critics highlighting some strong performances and the “stunning” design elements, but the conclusion of most was that no amount of impressive costuming and video projections could disguise a play deemed by the Guardian's Michael Billington “an example of the Higher Tosh”. Third time not so lucky for the Donmar.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “The bubble hasn’t exactly burst over the Donmar West End season, but Madame de Sade … is a severe disappointment following the delights of Ivanov and Twelfth Night … The static nature of the debates by de Sade’s womenfolk ... makes for a surprisingly sedate and superficial evening, with none of the revolutionary excess or unbridled sensuality you’d expect (or hope for) in a show about the debauched Marquis … It’s been widely seen across Europe, notably in a production by Ingmar Bergman. This pedigree may have duped Grandage into thinking he’d found an ideal vehicle for his cast of lovely ladies in the Donmar jamboree. The result is an elegant, beautifully costumed drama of no guts or passion whatsoever.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Michael Grandage's success has been founded on his directorial brilliance and impeccable taste. But I fear his judgment may have wobbled in choosing to revive this discussion-drama written by Yukio Mishima ... The acting and staging are breathtaking but the play itself is an example of the Higher Tosh. Mishima's aim was clearly to write an elevated, Racine-like drama about the nature of passion, so he assembles a group of women all associated with the Marquis de Sade. He then has them debate, over three acts stretching from the Marquis's arraignment for poisoning and sodomy in 1772 to his release from prison in 1790, their attitudes to his punitive philosophy … As a piece of son et lumière, Grandage's production is stunning. It's just the play that strikes me as decadent romanticism.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) - “Michael Grandage has proved he can turn just about any old play into gold, but last night Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade resisted even his director’s alchemy. It’s lead, gilded lead, highly decorated lead, but still lead. And that’s despite the hard work of Judi Dench, who has to be almost permanently outraged as the mother-in-law of the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, and Rosamund Pike, who can’t be blamed for resembling an earnest schoolgirl doggedly adjusting to larks in the dorm … Again and again I felt I was hearing the Mishima who liked to pose for the camera as St Sebastian, was photographed with a hatchet jutting from his head, and ended up ritually disembowelling himself. There’s something creepy about his fascination with sadism and masochism - and something very creepy about Madame de Sade.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Yukio Mishima's deeply dodgy play about the Marquis de Sade, first staged in 1965, five years before the Japanese writer made a similarly botched job of his own ritual suicide, proves fit only for pretentious masochists. It's pure theatrical torture … Dench must know she's landed herself in a dud because she isn't nearly as fluent with her lines as one might expect – but then in Donald Keene's laborious translation they are hardly memorable. The poor woman is also landed with a series of ridiculously elaborate frocks and wigs that make her look like one of those crinoline dolls Blackpool landladies use to cover up the spare lavatory roll … Pike is one of the most beautiful and intelligent of British actresses but her constant speeches of selfless devotion to her vile husband prove just as tedious as Dench's haughty disapproval.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “When it comes to straight plays, or even bent ones, few more weird or perverse than Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade can have hit the staid West End stage this century … Anyone, though, who hopes the play’s title serves as a coded come-on for sado-masochists in search of a bad time, complete with scenes of sexual degradation performed with titillating realism, will be cruelly disappointed. The impurity of Madame de Sade lies in its thoughts not its deeds … The play’s weirdness - its refusal to deal adequately with problems posed by sado-masochism - does not disguise the fascination of the questions it implicitly raises. Why is it now as in the 18th century usually women who succumb to masochism at the hands of sadistic men like de Sade?”
- by Theo Bosanquet & Katie Blemler