Friday, 8 May 2009

Mishima's Madame de Sade: Blood & Roses

First things first, the image to my left is by and (c) Eikoh Hosoe: 'Portrait of Yukio Mishima', 1963.

Now then: one of the problems I have with going to the theatre is the tendency of audiences to laugh aloud at things that aren’t especially funny – as in, for example, quite a few of Shakespeare’s comedies. But, fair play, sometimes I do it myself, in that it’s a simple way to encourage the performers and assist the production on its way, just as one cheers the lads on the pitch even if a few early passes go astray.

However, it makes for a larger problem when laughter, even of that encouraging variety, serves to set up the wrong sort of mood for a dramatic production; and a larger problem still, artistically speaking, if the performers were purposely directed to seek those sorts of easy laughs.

This was going through my mind at the Wyndham Theatre last night as I watched Madame de Sade, the only play other than Hamlet that I've seen performed more than twice - so I can claim a bit of familiarity with it, as with its author, the phenomenal Mishima, a writer I’ve admired passionately for just as long as I’ve been reading good books.

The specific problem of the giggles and snickers during last night’s show seemed to me part of the tiresome, age-old English problem with sex: the furtive, embarrassed, vicarious interest in rudeness, naughtiness, smuttiness. No Sex Please, We’re British. 'That Freud, sex-mad he was...' The obsessive prurient interest in what other people do in bedrooms, the inability to behold oneself truly in the mirror. To wit, my companion for the evening pointed out that the woman two rows in front kept turning to her friend and emitting a little ‘Ooh!’, as in: 

Judi Dench: It wasn’t only blood he cleansed with his tongue...
Audience Woman: Ooh!

Now, there is a certain existential flipside to the English view of sex, or what George Orwell called our ‘lowness of outlook’: because sexual urges can indeed be low-down, dirty and comical. And since all sexual desire tends finally towards dysfunction and failure, like everything else in life, we shouldn’t miss the joke in that falling-off from urgency and vitality, in that gap between fantasy and reality.

Nevertheless: English literature has no equivalent to Sade, or Georges Bataille, or Jean Genet or even Anais Nin. So English theatre audiences may be poorly equipped for a play that refracts Sade’s philosophy of the boudoir through the measured, well-turned perversity of a Japanese genius who was both a Spartan classicist and an occasional pornographer.

I first saw Madame de Sade in August of 1990 at the Royal Academy in Glasgow: a production directed by Ingmar Bergman, played in Swedish. The whole audience were issued with wand-like electronic ear trumpets for the purpose of simultaneous translation. The elderly blazer-clad Scot in the seat beside me thought this wheeze hilarious, and expected me too to find it much more interesting than the foreign nonsense on stage that his wife had clearly dragged him to.

But I digress: Bergman’s stage was red, en hommage perhaps to his own Cries and Whispers, but also to the driving blood-and-roses theme of the play. When the lights came up on the elegantly debauched Madame Saint-Fond (Agneta Ekmanner) in riding gear avec swishing crop, there was a sharp intake of breath round the house; and an interesting tension developed in the subsequent exchanges between her and the pious Baroness de Simiane (Margaretha Byström.) Thus, it seemed to me, was a good mood established.

The same effect is certainly not achieved – or, rather, not sought – between Frances Barber and Deborah Findlay in Michael Grandage’s new West End production. In fairness, Mishima himself makes room in the text for a lot of the mock-scandalising effect. (Marguerite Yourcenar, an admirer of Mishima and of this play, wrote of Saint-Fond’s ‘cynical monologues written, it seems, to impress the spectator.’) But once the audience starts tittering over the same, because the actors are really selling it, the effect is to counteract the later dramatic force of the piece: ‘the joy of profanation’, the interplay of ‘holiness and shame.’

Still, I should say the great achievement of Grandage’s production to my little eyes is that this force had never seemed more apparent to me than last night, once the show got into its stride.

Mishima’s play is in the Racinian mode, a listening play. Mishima himself wrote that he wanted none of ‘the usual, trivial stage effects’ but, rather, action controlled exclusively by dialogue, the ‘collisions of ideas’ making the drama. It’s a tough thing to do. (I speak as an amateur who once  mounted a production of Britannicus in a black box over a pub in Islington.) So one has to admire the excellence of Grandage and his cast and crew.

The text was astutely cut to make an evening of 105 minutes without interval. There was a pronounced tendency to dramatise with light and sound the play's long speeches about Sade’s depravities, either experienced or witnessed or overheard, and their effects upon these women. But that high style did produce some fine effects. Dench did her stuff superbly. As Renee, Madame de Sade herself, Rosamund Pike rather set off at one pitch that she maintained, but her best moments {‘Alphonse is myself…) were spine-tinglingly good. She also made a wonderful job of articulating the play’s great recurrent theme of the rose and its redness, its allure and banality: ‘the usual roses’ of kitsch, prettified life, as opposed to the rose that grows snake-scales under cover of darkness...

This production really brought out the hidden bond between the depraved Renee and the pious Simiane: both find that exposure to Sade helps them see past the arrogance of ego, toward the world at its darkest. Both get themselves to a nunnery, but Simiane with less fuss. ‘You to the right and I to the left’, as Svidrigaylov says to his soul brother Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The audience laughed, of course, when Deborah Findlay made her final entrance in a nun’s habit, and so be it. But I found I was thinking of Satoko taking the veil in Mishima’s Spring Snow, the first volume of his Sea of Fertility; and her later reappearance as the abbess in the last volume, The Decay of the Angel. Mishima wasn’t big on religion but he had a refined vision of the void.

The great Luis Bunuel was never troubled by the worst things he could think of; he spoke of ‘the perfect innocence of the imagination.’ But in Mishima’s play Renee believes she is a properly evil companion to her husband until she meets his mind on the page, reading his Justine. Then she sees they have no bond if it is based only on ‘the emptiness of acts of the flesh.’ He has built a ‘cathedral of vice’ with words, one from which she is excluded.

The theme of the dutiful, devoted wife is more intriguing in the light of Mishima’s own marriage to Yoko Sugiyama, a very public affair about which Mishima, typically, wrote a treatise prior to the ceremony. Yoko conducted herself very carefully before ‘The Incident’ of his suicide in 1970, and after that she was a diligent keeper of his flame. Mishima’s friend and biographer John Nathan was of the view that Yoko ‘perfectly learned her husband’s manner’ once she was in charge of his estate, and turned from being a highly personable young woman to quite a formidable cookie.

Once, reviewing some gossipy press clippings with Nathan as he prepared his book, Yoko remarked to him as if in bemusement that ‘a few of them even wrote that Mishima was queer!’ Nathan was given to understand that this was the beginning and the end of that subject between them. And when Paul Schrader made an intricate deal with Madame Mishima for the film rights to her husband’s life, she was careful to deny him dramatisation rights to the one novel preoccupied with homosexuality, Forbidden Colours. Life and art, words and the world: few artists addressed themselves to these divides as diligently as Mishima.

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