As I sat down in the theatre on Friday and leafed through the programme, I realised that by the end of the ‘Donmar at the West End’ season we’ve seen all the productions. (We have tickets to see Hamlet in August). This is not intended as a boast. It’s to note that so far I’ve only liked one of the productions, Twelfth Night. This is unusual because I rarely come out of the original Donmar Warehouse without having loved the play.
Is it because the Wyndham’s is a traditional theatre whereas Donmar Warehouse has the audience seated around the stage and the actors don’t have to worry about projecting their voices to the back of a large auditorium? Of course in order to attract the big name actors and to be able to stage large productions, the numbers matter. But even so.
In Madame de Sade, acting, as one would presume with stars such as Dame Judy Dench, Rosamund Pike and Frances Barber, was outstanding. The subject matter was interesting, as was the construction of the play, with the different viewpoints of the Marquis represented by the various roles. But something else in the play didn’t work.
Firstly there was no interval. The play was divided into three acts, all set several years apart. There are problems with this format: a) how to let the audience know time has passed b) how to make the audience believe time has passed. The first was dealt with by projecting the date on a screen lowered between the acts, as well as several clumsy lines announcing how many years had gone by. Second problem was sorted out with make-up and the addition of a stick to the the older character of Miss Dench. None of these worked. My daughter noted that it’s always difficult in a play to show the passing of time – on screen it works so much better. A play which may have worked in the 1960’s does not work in 2009.
Secondly there’s the subject matter. Obviously it’s still shocking, particularly when the Marquis’ victims were young, but what relevance do the actions and reactions of the women in this play have in today’s world? A powerful man, a titled man with good connections, is found to have had violent, sexual orgies with some prostitutes and servants in a seedy seaside town. A few women, including his wife, mother-in-law, wife’s sister, a devout Christian friend and a titled woman of ill repute contemplate these actions through a period of 20 or so years. In pre-revolutionary France, the women have little else to talk about. In modern Britain they would have got on with their lives while they let the sad man wither in a high-security prison somewhere. So why would we now be interested in what the women in eighteenth century France made of the Marquis de Sade?
When the play was about to start, only a few moments before the curtain was up, a couple in front of us found out their tickets had been for the previous week. They were removed from their seats while the owners of the correct tickets for the correct night installed themselves in front of us. Half way though the play I envied the couple who’d missed their night at the theatre. I imagined them sitting in a bar somewhere, laughing at their mistake, enjoying a glass of wine.
But no, I didn’t really wish I’d missed this first production of Madame de Sade in the West End. I just wish it could have been done at the Warehouse. Perhaps then the passing of time would have felt smoother and the reactions to the sexual violence more relevant.