Why are you so obstinate?” demands Judi Dench’s enraged mother of her daughter, whose wifely devotion to her imprisoned marquis remains inviolate. Obstinacy is the defining characteristic of Yukio Mishima’s defiantly static “Madame de Sade,” which is less a play than a narrative poem. A crowd-pleaser it most certainly is not, but if you are going to stage this bold, ornate debate, Michael Grandage’s faultlessly acted, austerely beautiful production is the first and last word in how to do so.
Another playwright might have taken the Marquis’ famed extreme sexual practices and staged them to salacious effect. Mishima, however, opts for the reverse strategy.
His de Sade is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the marquis and his deeds and dilemmas are all refracted through the views and avowals of six women. Conventional dramatic action is banished as Mishima deals out a narrative of offstage events in a succession of confrontations between the marquis’ wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, a lust-filled sexual partner, a pious former friend and a servant.
The structural rigor is matched by self-consciously artificial dialogue. Every word is savored by a superb sextet of actors basking in Richard Mawbey’s extravagantly piled-up wigs atop of Christopher Oram’s resplendent late-18th century dresses.
Dench powerfully abandons the warmth she traditionally brings even to harridan roles. Her permanently outraged mother spends most of the evening in attack mode, shooting scorn about the stage like arrows. But as the play proceeds from the marquis’ pre-revolutionary imprisonment in 1772 to his release in 1790, her behind-the-scenes manipulation of his fate is gradually revealed not only to have wearied her but to have had unexpected consequences.
Contrary to expectations driven by her firepower and the show’s marketing image — a headshot of Dench — the play’s title character and moral center is actually her daughter Renee, played by a particularly well-cast Rosamund Pike.
There’s a chilly constancy about Pike’s acting, a held and unbending quality that ideally matches a woman who, to her mother’s bafflement, refuses to be degraded by evidence of her husband’s lawless, sado-masochistic endeavors.
Only in the final pivotal scene does Pike falter. Her seismic change of heart is dramatized in a long personal transfiguration in which she finally hits fiercely identifiable passion. But while it’s impressive when she bursts out of her hauteur, she has withheld so much for so long that, for all her prowess, the change is unmoving.
Toying with her riding crop, a delightful Francis Barber revels in detailing the marquis’ rumored sexual excesses. She and Deborah Findlay’s pious Baronesse de Simiane find welcome comedy whenever possible.
Given the arch formality of both the structure and the writing, Grandage’s production is remarkable for its sustained tension. Oram’s tarnished silver set of a towering Paris mansion not only reeks of money and status, it acts as mottled canvas for Neil Austin’s lustrous lighting that grows ever richer, more saturated and more emotionally articulate as the characters sink into reveries of past events.
Design work is perfectly in tandem with Grandage’s unexpected use of video. Instead of using literal imagery, Lorna Heavey’s subtle, intermittent projections on the back wall are abstract and suggestive — is that blood clotting or scurrying clouds? — backgrounding the language rather than slavishly imitating it. This is complemented by Adam Cork’s evocative and increasingly anguished soundscape mixing period string sounds and contemporary composition with barely discernible crowd effects.
Pain and pleasure, Mishima argues, may be indivisible but the morality that surrounds them is deeply suspect. But isn’t the division between good and evil a different matter? To find a play asking these kinds of questions in so ascetic a manner in the commercial West End is bracing, to say the least. It will leave many audiences cold, but cast to the hilt in the middle of the Donmar’s low-priced, prestige-packed season, it has welcome audacity.