Quills is a fleshy tour de force about art, morality and sex. Written by Doug Wright, Quills follows the tale of the pornographer/moralist/artist Marquis de Sade and his final years in Charenton mental asylum.
Set within the well suited premises of the Arts House Meat Market, Quills is a world populated by dozens of Grand Guignol-esque lunatics, cripples and offenders who play out the struggle between de Sade (Adrian Carr) and the institution’s new manager, Dr. Royer-Collard (Adam Ward). But really it’s a struggle between art and morality, censorship and liberty, religion, humanity and insanity. This is embodied chiefly through the various Socratic dialogues between de Sade and the Abbe de Coulmier (Dylan Watson).
Quills is a strong all-round performance that did well to fill the space acoustically. But it is Carr’s stunning embodiment of de Sade as a complex and riving anti-clown that steals the show. His performance shifts between the stunning showman and the pained and ultimately humane individual, tormented by his own desire and conflicted by the love (?) he has for Madeleine LeClerc (Lauren Murtagh).
Similarly, Watson’s performance is strong as a character torn by his love for humanity yet ultimately caught in a rift between two opposing ideologies. Ward is similarly presents us with a strong characterisation of the stern and unmoving yet ultimately and ironically cuckolded doctor.
Ultimately, Quills is a strong work and a powerful achievement by some very talented actors. However, the performance is long and the script could have done with some editing, particularly the second act, during which the story appears to dissolve into a drawn-out conclusion that doesn’t add much to the overall message of the piece. Similarly, there’s something slightly distasteful and archaic about the form of the show (in particular the ‘insane’ chorus, which has been done to death by so many productions one wonders if it resonates as it once did), which almost makes it a museum piece. That, however, is a matter of taste and shouldn’t detract from what is ultimately is an entertaining work achieved by a strong group of performers.