A word, then, about Max Hoehn’s performance as the notorious Marquis de Sade. This was an extraordinary bit of theatre – unlike many student performers, Hoehn had given real thought to the physicality of his character as well as his words, and his seedy, weirdly vulnerable sybarite managed to elicit sympathy, or at least understanding, even as his actions destroyed the world around him.
Not that there weren’t fine performances elsewhere. Thanks to some real comedy and pathos from Natasha Kirk (expertly channelling an early-period Babs Windsor as washerwoman Madeleine Leclerc) and the comic cruelty of Tom van der Klugt as Doctor Royer-Collard, the play was eminently watchable throughout, but Hoehn was definitely the star.
The trouble is – he shouldn’t have been. During the draggy second half, when de Sade’s presence recedes, it becomes clear that the play’s heart, the only person who undertakes a real dramatic journey, is the kindly, beleaguered Abbé de Coulmier. This is a play about a man broken on the ugliest, sharpest rocks of human nature, a bleak tale whose moral is that goodness cannot survive prolonged exposure to its opposite. What surrounds the Abbé are symbols of this - the Marquis, in particular, is not so much a character as a special effect, and if he seems a little one-note, it’s because the script rarely gives him more than one note to play. Sadly Alex Bowles, while perfectly competent in delivering his lines, didn’t have the range or the power to convince us of the Abbé’s horrific progress. Slightly gawky and frequently making the classic error of confusing ‘emotional intensity’ with ‘shouting’, he was not quite up to the job of giving Quills its most obvious focus, leaving it slightly adrift.
This was possibly a fault of Jonathan Rhodes’ direction. It’s a shame, because Rhodes made some fine choices elsewhere – particularly in making innovative use of the stage space (another rarity in amateur productions), and a rather daring (if too loud) attempt at interpreting physically what must be the play’s most difficult scene to stage, as de Sade’s words almost literally infect the Charenton asylum. A student director must make do with what he has, and if you have someone like Hoehn the temptation is to take advantage of it, but it would have been a braver choice to put the brakes on him and coax a little more out of his fellows.