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Print Version

de Sade
Written and performed by Alexander Sparrow

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 10 Jun 2014 to 14 Jun 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 11 Jun 2014

I try to avoid coming to a show with preconceptions or, if they can't be avoided, to set them aside so the way is clear for the work to be presented on its own terms. This can be a challenge when the focus is on an historically real and infamous person, in this case the 18th century French nobleman and sexual libertine Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, best known as the Marquis de Sade, who gave his name to sadism.

Of course the publicity is expressly designed to raise our expectations: “‘Screw in the streets, burn your law books, and tear up the town – it's time to have a little fun',” runs the blurb for this BATS Theatre (Out of Site) season. “You are humbly invited to visit the Divine Marquis, Lord of Fetishism, King of Sadism … and the world's most infamous literary prisoner.”

The de Sade writer/performer Alexander Sparrow's media release for the original season in the NZ Fringe back in February was even more expansive: “Sparrow says, ‘The Marquis spent most of his life in prison, but imagine if he hadn't. Imagine a school of sadism and rioting. This show will divide the masses – he wanted a republic, he wanted complete sexual freedom, he wanted a world that was impossible to build for the destruction it would cause.'

“A comedian and writer on the Wellington circuit, Sparrow's show is going to be an insane mix of sadistic acts, fetishism, history, and wit. ‘de Sade wasn't just disgusting – he could be hilarious and cheeky too. There's more to him than his books.'

“This is an hour of chaotic ecstasy from the king of sadism himself. It's time to tear apart society and screw in the streets. It's time to rid ourselves of the monarchy. ‘It's time, dear reader, to have a little fun.'”

As we navigate the passage to the auditorium I hear a young punter say, “I have no idea what to expect,” and remind myself to park my preconceptions and abandon myself to whatever may happen.

Sparrow's naked back is centrestage. The 1960s furniture, plastic-corked bottle of fizzy wine and modern books – collecting such titles as Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue; Juliette; The 120 Days of Sodom; and Philosophy in the Bedroompresumably (which he refers to as “tomes of putrile [sic] shit”) – alongside a quill pen and parchments on a low coffee table immediately indicate we're in a mash-up of time and place. Fair enough too: anarchy rules.   

That we discover him naked and he dresses in black jeans emphasises the ‘modern dress' convention. The large M and marked-off tally in charcoal that adorns his chest proves an excellent conversation-starter. Redolent of how a prisoner marks the cell wall or a castaway keeps track of the days, this tally turns out to be of something else … and we are off on the naughty stuff which he promises “will get worse”.

He is not in prison; he's been moved to an asylum (Charenton, presumably) and the French Revolution is under way or just over (which would see him nudging 60 if we were going for historical accuracy). As a writer, however, Sparrow chooses not to dramatise or in any way explore the socio-political potential of this. He simply casts us as his visitors … and relates to us as his audience a Bats on a Tuesday night in 2014. And this being his opening night, he knows almost everyone by name.

On the acting side, Sparrow makes no attempt at characterisation. He presents as the young Kiwi man from Upper Hutt he is, not so much ‘channelling' de Sade and referencing ideas about him, albeit in the first person. He offers none of the fluency of an educated, opinionated and passionate man; his delivery is halting and sometimes comes in fits and starts, as if to convince us he's making it up.

His physicality is in no way suave. Much of the time he is slightly bent over as if warding off stomach cramps, dying for a piss or about to fart. Is the idea, then, to suggest that incarceration has defeated him and robbed him of his privileged sense of entitlement and confidence; of his determination to promulgate his philosophies no matter what, especially right now with an audience at his disposal?

What generates the ‘little fun' we've been exhorted to have is the involvement of the audience in his chats. Asking us to participate in a simple exercise inevitably gets us laughing. Getting a friend up to whip him with a riding crop has undoubted entertainment value. And he scores extra points, when pleading with us to have opinions about our feelings and desires and to share them far and wide, by noting the presence of a critic in the audience whose job it is to do just that.

Often he is telling us that certain people, things or ideas are having a specific effect on him yet there is no sense this is actually happening to him, either emotionally or physically. I am not suggesting explicit exposure – although I do find myself contemplating the possibilities of baggy pants, perhaps with a clever device inside, that could convince us of hidden activity more effectively that tight jeans can.

Even if we take this as a Comedy Festival style show, where the comedian riffs on the philosophies and behaviours of the Marquis de Sade in a contemporary context and as himself, it has to be said there is much more potential to be exploited.

There being no programme and no mention of other creatives in the media material, I assume Sparrow is his own sole writer and director. Having a co-writer or dramaturge and a director on board to interrogate his objectives and develop the means by which he meets them would have undoubted value. Or he needs to challenge himself more, which would be harder.

As it stands … I guess it does deliver the ‘little fun', as promised.
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*Austrian utopian, socialist and humanist philosopher Leopold von Sacher-Masoch gave his name to masochism about a century later. 
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 Maraea Rakuraku