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Well, here’s an antidote to elections and earnest speeches: the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 treatise on the erotic education of a young virgin at the hands of libertines “sowing roses on the thorns of life”, served up with exuberance and synchronised spanking.
With a text this graphic, a director has to figure out how to handle the sex without tumbling into porn or voyeurism. Christine Letailleur gives it the jolliest treatment imaginable in a big game of illusions. Layers of swishing red curtains reveal and conceal the inner sanctum behind which (almost) everything is laid bare. The sexual athletes pop out gleefully to update us on progress. Servants interject beaming commentary like scientific observers. Forget the whip and we could almost be in Feydeau farce-land.
The stagecraft and use of sound is inventive, confident, played for laughs. The naughtier the action, the louder the Mozart to which actors gaily prance. Flesh is bared but white stockings and shiny shoes stay put. Deafening horses’ hooves force pleasure-seekers to remember the outside world.
It’s the first time I’ve seen Letailleur’s work and she’s clearly an excellent director of actors because intimacy on this scale calls for very high trust. The cast is uniformly excellent. Stanislas Nordey’s Dolmancé and Valérie Lang’s husky Madame de Saint-Ange make an outrageously lusty couple of instructors, sparkling, intelligent and crisp. Charline Grand’s Eugénie is demure, then gorgeously perverted. But if this is a joyous text by de Sade’s standards, it has a dark underbelly that Letailleur’s breezy comic treatment hardly prepares us for. The play’s best-known section is actually the famous final monologue in support of atheism, abolition of the death penalty (which hung over de Sade more than once), prostitution and incest. The mood changes abruptly through dim lighting and distant sounds of revolution as the monologues question whether morals are really necessary in a government and denounce “barbarous inequality”.
Beautifully delivered but still, it’s hard to make the jump from the cruelty-free zone of the first half to their vicious revenge on Eugénie’s frigid mother at the hands of a valet infected with the pox.
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