Why are the British so shy about sex onstage?

Deborah Findlay and Judi Dench in Madame de Sade

Why do the British find sex such a difficult subject to stage? Watching Michael Grandage's new production of Madame de Sade, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Yukio Mishima's complex exploration of seduction and desire was in fact an adaptation of a Mills and Boon. Grandage himself has labelled the play "high 18th-century porn… contained in a genuinely thrilling narrative" and his quivering-bosomed, frock-flouncing treatment certainly bears this out.

But as lovely-looking as it is, Grandage's Sade suffers from the classic dilemma British theatre faces with sex: we just can't play it straight. The play's debates between de Sade's wife, mother-in-law and lovers, about the power and danger of his evil ways should be ritualistic and discomforting, saturated with the stink of sex as the women play out the competing compulsions of de Sade's mind. But the actresses seem unable to resist milking each titter or gasp. Many of Mishima's lines are darkly funny. But they would be so much funnier, and more powerful, if they were delivered simply, from sensual sophisticates not schoolgirls.

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