Madame de Sade, Wyndhams, London
Kafka's Monkey, Young Vic, London
The Last Cigarette, Minerva, Chichester

A play about the Marquis de Sade's women is torture to watch, but two other productions soothe the pain

The Marquis de Sade couldn't get enough of painful atrocities, and we are duly regaled with accounts of his sadomasochistic binges in Yukio Mishima's costume drama, Madame de Sade – penned in 1960s Japan, set in 18th-century Paris, and now inflicted on London's West End. And yes, it's torture! This is not the obscure gem everyone has been anticipating in director Michael Grandage's star-studded Donmar-at-Wyndham's season. It is a lavishly dressed-up piece of crud.

Think Les Liaisons Dangereuses, minus the liaisons. Obeying neoclassical rules of seemliness, nothing shocking is shown on stage. Unless, that is, you count the sight of our pint-sized national treasure, Dame Judi Dench, as the Marquis's mother-in-law, so smothered in ruched silk and a pyramidal wig that she looks like a morally outraged Walnut Whip.

Does she hope to escape the monster's clutches by masquerading as confectionery? Any sort of Whip is an unwise choice, one fears, as Frances Barber's dissolute Comtesse de Saint-Fond thwacks her riding crop against her panniers and describes the notorious aristo's latest round of flagellations.

Madame de Sade is, in fact, mind-numbingly tedious. Next to nothing happens. The Marquis himself never materialises. Instead, a handful of ladies – including Rosamund Pike as his devoted wife, Renée – stand around looking glazed in a silver-gilded mansion. Holding forth in purple prose about the absentee's sexploits, their tone is often incomprehensibly adoring. He has no fangs, she cries, "only a whip, a knife, and a rope ... not all that different from the instruments of beautification we women use – the looking glass, powder, lipstick." Excuse me?

But don't imagine there's to be any lucid debate. Dench half-shouts her ripostes as if persuaded that it'll all make sense if she just declaims loudly enough. What's really disturbing is that Grandage's audience sit politely swallowing such codswallop. Adam Cork's desperately grandiose sound score – with blasts of cod-Michael Nyman and phantom whinnies – seems designed to drown out the soft rustle of punters having the pants bored off them, and of quality actresses quietly kicking themselves, under their beautiful frocks, for hitching their talents to this garbage.

What a relief to move on to the riveting satire and melancholy of Kafka's Monkey. This is a gently lyrical adaptation by Colin Teevan of Franz Kafka's A Report to an Academy. A monkey-turned-man surreally gives a lecture, ruminating on how he has progressed up the ladder of so-called civilisation, apeing the rum-swigging captors who slung him in a cage below decks.

It is not freedom that he has gained, he carefully insists, but the only way out. The allegory, if ultimately inconclusive, is subtly shifting. Maybe it's about racial imperialism, class, even women in trousers.

In an electrifying tour de force, the physical-theatre actress Kathryn Hunter plays Red Peter, the semi-assimilated simian, in white tie and tails and a large bowler hat. Tottering in with stooped knees and a wildly spinning double-jointed shoulder, she's simultaneously like an aged vaudevillean and a baby chimp, her dark eyes wide with enquiry in her scrumpled raisin of a face. When she raises her bowler, the hair's a hilarious tuft: half orang-utan, half Stan Laurel. Sometimes she dangles from the walls, eyeing us upside-down, or grooms a giggling audience member for fleas.

This is inspired zoological clowning and poignantly humane, punctuated with fits of quivering fear and rage as Peter remembers his cruel incarceration. It is a beautifully punctuated work, director Walter Meierjohann creating surges of tragedy and comedy on a near-bare stage.

Sir Richard Eyre made a welcome return to the theatre last week too, with his staging of The Last Cigarette: an adaptation of the late Simon Gray's wonderfully rambling Smoking Diaries and his last journal, Coda, in which he confronted his lung cancer. Eyre's production is splendidly fluid and full of humorous life. Having Gray played in triplicate – by Nicholas Le Prevost, Jasper Britton and Felicity Kendal – means the author can chat and quarrel with himself, and the trio can multi-task as everyone from his parents to Harold Pinter to preening doctors. Le Prevost is outstandingly droll, morphing into a smug chipmunk of a consultant, though Kendal can be excessively perky. I missed the touching one-to-one intimacy of the books, but this is also a poignant memento mori. Gray's hangdog face floats in the pitch black above the stage: a wraith-like image in monochrome that keeps melting, like smoke, back into the darkness.

'Madame de Sade' (0844 482 5120) to 23 May; 'Kafka's Monkey' (020-7922 2922) to 9 Apr; 'The Last Cigarette' (01243 781312) to 11 Apr

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own