First Night: Madame de Sade, Wyndhams Theatre, London

2.00

A lovely-looking de Sade – alas for masochistic audiences only

The new show at the Wyndhams looks beautiful, like a moving gallery of portraits by Joshua Reynolds. At one point, Judi Dench convinces you she might be wearing an entire priest's vestiary, bedecked as she is with surplus frocks and surplus surplices, and bits and bobs, and a wig that might have walked off the shelf at a Crufts bring and buy sale.

Mind you, that vestiary was probably a bestiary, too, as Dame Judi is the troubled mother-in-law of the Marquis de Sade, libertine, blasphemer and pamphleteer condemned to death for poisoning and sodomy – he'd get an Arts Council grant these days – as the play opens in 1772.

Ah, the eighteenth century, what larks back then. This rather static, philosophical play about the revolutionary's wife – played by Bond girl Rosamund Pike, finally slamming the door in the old rascal's face when he's let out of Charenton in 1790 – is written by Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima who disembowelled himself in 1970.

It's done the European rounds since its premiere in 1965 but this is the first British performance, in a translation by Donald Keene, and a production by Michael Grandage – the third in the Donmar West End season supported by United House – that doesn't persuade me it's long overdue.

De Sade's womenfolk, all six of them, assemble like a row of powdered duchesses (except for Jenny Galloway's truculent, blockish maidservant, Charlotte) in a Paris mansion designed by Christopher Oram as a mottled, silver corridor of sense and sensibility: the place belongs to Dame Judi's Madame de Montreuil who, like her daughters, Pike's Madame de Sade and Fiona Button's younger sister Anne, are historical characters.

The others are hysterical characters, fictional inventions: Frances Barber's Comtesse de Saint-Ford, swishing a riding crop and alluding to various Black Mass practices, with her body as an altar; and a sly nun, Baronesse de Simiane, beautifully done by Deborah Findlay as an authorised passport to secular pleasures in a contained religious environment.

Trouble is, none of this – or rather nun of this – gets us anywhere. There's an awful lot of speechifying by Rosamund Pike, going on about the Marquis' pornographic novel Justine (oh, for a few quotes or, better still, re-enacted scenes) who is technically under-equipped to deal with it and so begins to resemble one of those talking, squawking heads on a seaside pier game show, two bob a coconut.

Thirty years ago the Glasgow Citizens produced two wonderful shows by Robert David MacDonald about Sadean induction into libertinage and philosophical argument in a castle of torture that reverted to de Sade himself (with a bit of Marivaux thrown in) and illuminated his treatises of freedom and corruption in a brilliant punk Gothic stage language of the day.

The plays were genuinely dangerous and, in one of them, a lascivious duke threatened to drown the world in his demonic sperm before going berserk in a torrent of Nietszchean fury. A transvestite Madame tore off her clothes and danced with the corpse of a lacerated valet. I'm not advocating anything so bold in a show adorned by Dame Judi, but the mild wittering of a few miffed ladies in silk skirts is not much of a substitute.

While the Bastille was stormed from the outside, we are told, the Marquis was breaking down his prison walls from the inside. His campaign to establish a code of evil in a cathedral of vice is represented as a threat to the modern woman. You leave this play wishing he'd had a little more success.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones