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Posts Tagged ‘Frances Barber’

Well: my father was right – that wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, based on the truly horrifying reviews.

I went to see Mishima’s “Madame de Sade” with Me As A Protestant (we were due to be accompanied by his wife, though not, of course by my theatre-phobic wife: but she was too late in her pregnancy, suffering the ills of acid indigestion to join us – which was a shame): he is a huge Mishima fan, and confided to me that, other than “Hamlet”, this is the only play that he has seen four times. Four times! It’s hardly ever performed – at least in the UK – so this is “theatregoer as sleuth/pilgrim” if ever there were a case of that.

Anyway, it was great to see him, as ever, and great to hear that his prodigious talent is pushing out into yet another area (he’s starting work at The National Theatre Studio this year), and (as should be evident from the above) there probably isn’t anyone who is more likely to be a great companion at this play.

It really is considerably better than the critics would have you believe. Most of there problems have centred on the play itself and how “nothing happens”. Well, that is as true as saying that nothing happens in Racine (or, indeed, Beckett – but then everyone KNOWS that “we don’t say that…anymore”) – what happens, happens off-stage and is reacted to on-stage, by the six women who comprise the cast. The other problem with the play (from an English perspective) is that it is about sex, passion, profane and sacred love: there isn’t a fat neighbour with a speech impediment, or a nouveau-riche couple with HILARIOUS pretensions in sight – and that gave rise to a lot of embarrassed reactions to some of the rhapsodic passages in the play, and indeed to a chorus of “Ooh” from the stupid cunt in the seat in front of me. One can imagine how it has come to be part of the repertoire in France, and is so rarely seen here that it’s the first time it’s been seen in the West End, sadly.

Anyway: there are some flaws in this production. It seemed to me that the director couldn’t entirely commit himself to one style  – there are a series of projections that appear on the walls of the set, often accompanied by an echo appearing on the voices of the actors, which pushes the production into a very different space than that which the (for the main part, see below) acting styles and costuming seem to be pushing it. It’s as if the director doesn’t quite trust the actors, the script and the design to carry the meaning of the text: so we get it all underlined for us. And then, there is Frances Barber. Frances Barber is in a different production to everyone else: one that is akin to Gerald Scarfe cartoons come to life: she arches her eyebrows, she cracks her whip, she tilts her head and gives a hearty sneer – tipping the wink to the audience at every opportunity. I have never been a fan of hers, having seen her stamp her stupid way through major roles in “King Lear” and “La Dame Aux Camellias”, but when counterpointed by an actor of the talent, subtlety and grace of Judi Dench, her flaws were glaringly awful. Sadly, she dominated the first ten minutes – that critical point of orientation for any audience, when they starting thinking “Ah – so that’s what they’re doing here…” – and so she took the play into an eye-rolling, thigh stroking pantomime of “Ain’t I SHOCKIN’?” – so it’s hardly surprising that the audience took its cue from her and thought they were in for a naughty night. That opening speech (it seemed to me, though no expert I) should have been flinty and cruel, not salacious and smirking: we got the equivalent of a child waving its bum at a bunch of adults and then saying “I’m a naughty girl”. Euch.

Ah, but then there was Judi! She was magnificent, and in a role that must have been a joy for her: malignant and loving in equal measure, with a couple of speeches that she gave her unparalleled all to. I’ve never seen her anything other than splendid on the stage, and I know that a number of people whose view on acting I admire enormously (chief among them: David Hare and Richard Eyre) view her as our greatest actress, possibly they mean “actor” (though possibly, let’s be honest, they don’t…). Rosamund Pike, too, was first rate, providing as good an account of sexual and moral fervour as I have seen – and of course, she looks sensationally right for the part, a Blakean rose in full bloom.

The look of the thing distracted me (and not in the hugely satisfying way that the lovely Rosamund did): the set is certainly opulent – a silver gilded, paneled salon, with the gilding and the patina on the mirrors suggesting mould. The costumes are straight out of Fragonard and Boucher – but the palette is all wrong, and it’s hard to understand what is being suggested by the contrast between the setting and the costumes. And by the times the projections are in on the act (photo-real, adding another visual language) it all gets very muddy.

Anyway: I am glad i went. if I can, I might go again. It’s a treat to see a play that is so unapologetically for an audience (a group of listeners, let’s not forget), and that is entirely dependent on women to hold the narrative. I’d give it a healthy four out of five, and would suggest that were you to attend on a night when the audience weren’t hoping for “Whoops! There Go My Bloomers!”, and when Frances Barber is indisposed, then you might be in for a real treat. And for a different treat – those of you who are interested, might like a rather more scholarly (and certainly, better informed) take on the production:-

http://richard-t-kelly.blogspot.com/2009/05/mishimas-madame-de-sade-blood-roses.html

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