Quills – review

quills play

Disturbing: Quills. Photograph: Venus Raven

Pressed nose to nape in the hot dark belly of the White Rabbit Cocktail club, the soft cushions, dark staging and pornographic hangings are a perfect lair for Second Skin’s rendition of Doug Wright’s Quills.

The play re-imagines the last days of the Marquis de Sade from the dungeons of Charenton insane asylum. The only outlet for de Sade’s dark imagination whilst  imprisoned for his wicked behaviour and sinful tastes was in inking violent erotic stories and smuggling them out to the salivating masses.

Framed by the cruel repressions of France’s Reign of Terror, with heads “popping like champagne corks” in Paris, the play is a satirical take on personal freedom, passion and state control.

Grunting and preening, the Marquis should be the villain of the piece and yet he becomes a pathetic kind of hero. He is as much a victim of the greed of Doctor Royer Collard and his own wife, plotting to silence his writing, as the suppressed sadistic desires of the Abbe de Coulmier, which find their resolution in his bloody, but inevitable, end.

“Conversation, like other instruments, is better lubricated,” purrs Peter Glover’s brilliant Marquis, puckering a Cupid’s bow mouth and rearranging his bulging silk bathrobe. “Come and sit on my knee, so you don’t miss a word.”

Andy McQuade’s production is eloquent, funny and, ultimately, disturbing. The script is sharp and playful, and the cast deliver it with uniformly well-controlled timing and a lightness of touch that belie the demands of the piece. Glover is excellent – initially flouncing in powdered wig and flirting with maids; and later crawling on the floor, nude, and scrawling the walls with his own excrement.

He is a wonderful storyteller, “chaperoning us through the dark waters of the soul”, with snapshots of his lustful horror stories, while his captors try to stifle him with increasingly barbaric methods. We are often uncertain whether to laugh or shudder; whether we sit in judgement or are ourselves prurient spectators, craning for a glimpse of naked flesh.

Lauren Kellegher as de Sade’s hysterical wife is also a pleasure, bribing the doctor to silence her husband so that she can be received into polite society’s garden parties once more. Her lines swell to fill the recesses of the room without toppling into farce. Initially self-conscious, Chris Brown’s Abbe grows into the role, and his descent from light-hearted liberal churchman to the architect of the Marquis’s torture is as well handled as his anguish when he recognises the hypocrisy of his actions.

“I did not forge the mind of man, filling it with rancour and blood lust,” taunts the Marquis, confronted with the death of the maid Madeleine after a prisoner re-enacted one of his stories. “Don’t hate me because I turned the key.”

Till 11 November 2012, Wednesday to Sunday
White Rabbit Cocktail Club
125 Stoke Newington Church Street
N16 0UH