The bubble hasn’t exactly burst over the Donmar West End season, but Madame de Sade, by the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, translated by Donald Keene, is a severe disappointment following the delights of Ivanov and Twelfth Night.
Michael Grandage has directed all three productions - and will soon start work on the fourth, Jude Law's Hamlet - and has certainly pulled out the expected design stops: Christopher Oram’s silvered, eighteenth century corridor is gorgeously lit by Neil Austin and bathed in sweet sounds of foreboding (but why?) by Adam Cork.
But the static nature of the debates by de Sade’s womenfolk - his wife, her sister and their mother, as well as a lascivious countess (Frances Barber) and a naughty nun (Deborah Findlay, not naughty enough) - 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.
We never meet him, in fact, as he’s imprisoned in the Bastille on charges of poisoning and sodomy. The three short acts – played without an interval – stretch from 1772 to 1790, require Madame de Sade, played by Rosamund Pike, to move from a spirited defence of her husband’s beliefs and behaviour to a more independent view.
Pike does this with much spirit but little vocal variation or subtlety, while Judi Dench as her outraged mother, Madame de Montreuil, mostly stands around looking like a Joshua Reynolds portrait arranging her face in expressions of distaste, disapproval and downright disgust.
It’s hard to get quite so worked up oneself, wishing rather that we’d have a more celebratory, less cerebral, account of little sister’s (Fiona Button) seduction by the old goat in Venice, or a more practical demonstration than mere whip cracking of the countess’s sexual predilections. Jenny Galloway huffs and puffs with all the impatience of someone who can’t decide whether she wants to join in or go home.
Mishima - who killed himself by ritual disembowelment in 1970, wrote the play in 1965 and 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.