The Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima's 1965 drama Madame de Sade, the third production in the Donmar Warehouse's ambitious year-long residency at Wyndham's Theatre in the West End is, despite the presence in the cast of Dame Judi Dench, probably the riskiest. The play is composed of three acts and while it rarely lags, it also fails to involve. Instead, it holds its audience at arm's length.
Mishima is perhaps better known for the manner of his death -- a botched ritual suicide -- than for his work. Spanning a period of eighteen years, from 1772 to 1790, some months after the start of the French Revolution, the play tells the story of the depraved Marquis de Sade through the eyes of the women in his life: his wife, Madame de Sade; her mother, Madame de Montreuil; her younger sister, Anne; and two family acquaintances, Madame de Simiane and Madame de Saint-Ford, who act as opposite sides of a coin, one pious, the other carnal. The Marquis himself never appears.
Set entirely in the opulent salon of Madame de Montreuil's home, it is a very static play. Characters speak in lengthy monologues and their interactions are clipped and formal. Movement is also kept to a minimum. The characters enter and exit, sit and stand, but the nervous flutter of a fan is about as energetic as it gets.
Michael Grandage's production compensates by being visually dramatic. The costumes are opulent and Christopher Oram's glorious silvery set causes gasps when the curtain rises. Neil Austin's lighting makes the whole thing shimmer in a manner that brings to mind Versailles' Hall of Mirrors and, during certain speeches, evocative images are projected on the walls, adding to the sense of visual richness. As beautiful as all this is, there are clear parallels between these women's corseted, restrictive dresses and their sumptuous surroundings and the prison in which the Marquis languishes.
Fortunately, the performances enliven what often feels like a rather dry theatrical exercise. Rosamund Pike is quietly compelling as the devoted Madame de Sade; she has a near-radiant quality at times. Dench invests Madame de Montreuil with a suitably chilly dignity, while Frances Barber brings a degree of mordant humour to the Comtesse de Saint-Ford, brandishing a horse whip and ecstatically recounting the time her naked body was used as an altar. Jenny Galloway, Deborah Findlay, and Fiona Button also do excellent work.
The unseen Marquis, though much discussed, remains a distant figure in every sense. And although the women give voice to their fears and desires, it all feels rather clinical. There are ripples of humor and flashes of drama -- Pike's last speech, bathed in light, being one of them -- but they are all too few and far between.