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
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin