This is the first ever theatre production to be staged at the White Rabbit Cocktail Club in east London. The tiny basement venue, which seats only a handful of audience members, has chosen Doug Wright’s Quills to make its mark.
Wright’s play, originally staged in 1995, is inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s imprisonment in Charenton, the famed asylum which temporarily became home to many artists and writers. Sade is under the relatively progressive watch of the Abbe de Coulmier, whose humane treatment includes encouraging Sade to write for and read to the other prisoners. During his stay, he conducts a relationship with the seamstress Madeleine – who is also secretly desired by the Abbe.
Splitting the narrow performance area in two spaces – the Marquis’ cell and the office of Charenton’s owner, Doctor Royer-Collard – allows the director Andy McQuade to effectively establish the key relationships and parallels in the play. The Abbe (Chris Brown) and Sade (Peter Glover) have a relationship that is almost tender. This is horribly inverted at the end as they become mirror images of each other and the vacated cell becomes a site of madness.
There’s plenty of humour in McQuade’s production, which makes superb use of this intimate venue. He gives the most comic license to the Marquis’s socially hungry wife, Renee Pelagie (Lauren Kellegher) and to Royer-Collard (Stephen Connery-Brown). Kellegher is on brilliant form, trembling with indignation, and faking a heart condition supposedly brought on by her husband’s notoriety. The comedy perfectly highlights the self-interestedness and hypocrisy of the aristocrats, who lock the Marquis away for exposing the murky underside of their world.
Brown’s sympathetic priest is a necessary foil to the other characters, but his rather underpowered performance feels out of sync with the rest of the production. As the play builds to its horrific climax, he only seems slightly perturbed at the news that the woman he’s madly in love with has been ripped to shreds and hung up like a slaughtered cow.
The carefully modulated direction allows the production to shift easily from comedy to a serious consideration of censorship and scandal. One of the most powerful and complex scenes is the joint reading by the Abbe and Royer-Collard of Sade’s last story. While this is devoid of graphic imagery, the Abbe and Royer-Collard begin to suspect an obscene subtext for every line. Their increasingly hysterical reading is hilarious and there is a serious point to be made about what is deemed ‘pornographic’. In the end, the Marquis’s quills never had to be taken away from him, as his readers’ fevered imaginations were capable of producing far more scandalous texts.
Glover’s portly Sade strips completely naked and strides in front of the audience, relating increasingly perverse stories and eventually making his captors torture him in the manner of his fictional characters. It’s an engaging performance, though it makes him almost too likeable. The real-life Madeleine was actually 13, a fact ignored by the production (though Royer-Collard’s under-age wife, played by Julia Taylor, is a proxy for her). Sade never appears sexually threatening enough, despite Madeleine’s disgust for him. In fact, his (fictional) sexual restraint with her in Wright’s retelling redeems him at the end. This aside, Glover is a compelling presence, embodying the anti-hero appeal of Sade with his wit and cool delivery. The priest suffers the worst fate for his inability to act on his own desires: his repression proves to be the most self-destructive crime.