The concept is simple but effective: Huppert in a scarlet sheath dress, on a naked stage, populated downstage by a lectern, and upstage by a French baroque-style armchair, a simple table and a tall balanced-arm lamp. For most of the lecture, Huppert stands at the lectern, speaking in French, with English subtitles.

Huppert flirts with the same duality of moral sensitivity and physical sensuality present in Sade’s semi-sadist philosophising, while embodying two characters. A sensual red light washes over her when she reads the part of the sinful Juliette (1797), while teal blue douses her during her angelic embodiment of Justine (1791).

The performance is a balancing act. Huppert dons Sade’s contradictions like a second skin as she alternates between Justine and Juliette: grotesque satire with intellectual wit; unbridled cynicism with unbridled innocence; extreme sensations with cerebral moderation. Huppert captivates throughout, getting a visceral audience response, while also conveying the nuances in Sade’s reflections.

Huppert makes this all look effortless. Her economy and precision complement her infectious pleasure and panache. The microphone may fail, and the lights may come on late, but none of that deters her Juliette or Justine, who simply exist in all their mad and mundane complexity, like Huppert herself when she is on stage.

Check out the Southbank Centre website for more literature events.

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