Britain has some very brave senior actors, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it if you followed the British critical community. On March 18, Judi Dench, now 74, opened on the West End for the first time in three years to play the mother of the title character in Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade. General exultation from the ranks? Uh, not quite, the overnight reviews for the florid but far from dull play having been equalled in severity only by several of today’s Sunday papers, the female critics if anything more damning to that rare show populated entirely by women than their male confreres had been. Oh, if only this Michael Grandage production had followed on from Ivanov and Twelfth Night and given us another golden oldie, glisteningly done, on which to feast, went the general drift of reactions to Madame de Sade. Well, I for one applaud Grandage for taking a risk in programming this third of four mostly canonical texts in the Donmar’s yearlong residency at Wyndham’s. And while we’re at it, may we have a second season, please?
Back to Dench, who has come in for some rather rude suggestions that (a) the greatest classical actress of her generation is no judge of scripts and (b) that her ankle injury – resulting in the star’s absence from a spate of performances soon after opening – may have been a ruse to get her out of a play she didn’t like and in which she could not always remember her lines. Sound familiar? Similar aspersions (minus the memorisation bit) beset Dench’s great friend and exact contemporary Maggie Smith when Dame M. returned to the London theater two years ago after an even longer absence to star in Edward Albee’s scorching The Lady From Dubuque, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. That play was fairly roundly trounced and, against all expectation, did disappointing business, making negative waves as the first Smith venture anyone could think of not to recoup costs.
Well, I come not to bury these women but to praise them, as I do a British theatrical ethos that within the acting community itself values the new and/or unfamiliar over the old, even if you sometimes sense critics would be happier with an eternal diet of King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, and Hedda Gabler. (Hey, I love those plays, too, but not to the exclusion of all others.) It was both surprising and heartening during the 1980s to find two late, much-missed talents, Paul Scofield and Wendy Hiller, lending their formidable strengths to two American works, I’m Not Rappaport and Driving Miss Daisy, respectively, that inevitably drew sneers from observers who couldn’t get beyond the fact that Scofield was no longer playing Lear and that Hiller had more weapons in her arsenal than merely another retread as Lady Bracknell; even Laurence Olivier chose a relatively modest entry, a new play by Trevor Griffiths called The Party, as his last-ever theatrical venture, when it could easily have been, oh I dunno, Lear’s Gloucester or Chekhov’s Firs. In fact, Smith’s occupancy of the title role in Lady From Dubuque is one of the few recent performances that I actually chose to see twice, the final Saturday matinee of the play’s run forever with me as an example of a peerless actress in perfect command of her art: Smith played the mysterious visitor of the title with not a trace of artifice, her final questioning of the audience a shimmering moment that haunts me still.
Madame de Sade is an altogether different kettle of sexually aberrant fish, and I’d be lying if I didn’t at times feel that the six incredibly talented women on stage were working themselves into a fever pitch, abetted by Adam Cork’s busy, buzzy sound design, that the material itself didn’t always warrant. But as always with Dench, her very arrival some way into the first scene stilled an expectant house that no doubt got an immediate kick from a wig that wouldn’t be out of place in the finale of Hairspray, the actress’s inbuilt gravitas pausing on occasion to let us know that she was in on the overripeness of it all, too.
And yet, I wouldn’t have missed for the world a production that is considerably riskier than Grandage‘s previous Twelfth Night, which was itself led from the front by a senior actor in Derek Jacobi’s Malvolio playing it notably safe, and for ready shtick, in a way Dench and Smith would never do. (Jacobi doesn’t always do it, either, as those who saw his ferocious star turn under Grandage’s watch in Schiller’s Don Carlos can surely attest.) But as I ponder the varieties of opprobrium that have been slung toward Madame de Sade and its distinguished cast (“crud” and “higher tosh” stand out among the slings and arrows), one has to wonder whether the critics weren’t taking their own leaf from de Sade and gleefully cracking a poison-tipped whip that they generally keep at their feet. Let’s just hope that Dench’s recovery from injury at home isn’t leaving her too much time to read the papers. We want this woman back on this stage, any stage, as soon and as often as possible. And for those for whom an all-female take on an absent hero is just too much – the Marquis de Sade is spoken of but never seen – just hold tight. Grandage’s next play at Wyndham’s is Jude Law in Hamlet in which the title character – spoiler ahead! – does indeed appear.