Tuesday, January 05, 2016

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at the Donmar: Love and Death...

It had to come... my last theatre visit of 2015.  But what a way to end it with the chance to see one of my favourite plays for the first time since 1990, Christopher Hampton's dazzlingly decadent LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos.

In 1987, four years after falling under the spell of Christopher Hampton's writing with Peter Gill's wonderful production of TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD at the National Theatre, I managed to see his latest hit LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at the Ambassadors Theatre where it had transferred from The Pit Theatre at the Barbican.  I had missed the original cast of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan but saw Jonathan Hyde and Eleanor David, the latter giving a performance that was glitteringly lethal.

I saw it with my late friend Martin Taylor and indeed, the more cutting of the Marquise de Merteuil's lines soon found their way into our shared badinage and, sitting in the Donmar betwixt Christmas and the New Year that will mark the 20th anniversary of Martin's death, those lines made me smile all over again.  Sometimes being overly-familiar with a play can be a bad thing but it was a deep pleasure to see the play where it belongs, on an intimate stage.

Laclos' epistolary novel - his one, lasting success - was written seven years before the French Revolution and can be viewed as a devastating critique of the hedonistic society that was to lose it's collective head a few years hence but we will never know for certain.  Laclos' was a military man and you can see his knowledge of strategies and warfare in his tale of two scheming aristocrats who delight in plotting revenge on ex-lovers.

The novel has been adapted for stage and screen in various guises and Hampton's play was the basis of the most well-known film DANGEROUS LIAISONS for which he won an Academy Award for his adapted script.  However the play exerts a particular power onstage and one sits entranced as the conspirators Valmont and Mertueil circle their prey and ultimately each other.  For me it is the perfect play, well-constructed with it's own inner engine, dizzying wordplay and moments of genuine suspense and pathos.

Hampton's delicious trick is to make the audience side with Valmont and Merteuil in their plots - Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce the teenage soon-to-be bride of an ex-lover while Valmont wishes to seduce a married woman famous for her fidelity and piety.  Although reluctant to act on Merteuil's plan, when Valmont learns that the young girl's mother has been bad-mouthing him to his married prey he takes agrees to Merteuil's challenge.

Of course Valmont triumphs in both cases but he leaves himself exposed when Merteuil realises that in the process of seducing Madame de Tourvel he has committed the cardinal sin of falling in love.  Above all else, this means she is no longer the sole object of his desire.  Inch by inch, Hampton pulls the carpet from under the audience's feet as we realise our hero and heroine do real damage to those they prey on and morally the audience is left hanging.

Tom Scutt's design of a grand salon going to the bad - plaster peeling, gilt tarnished, large paintings left unhung - was an interesting metaphor for the society the conspirators embody, and it was warmly lit by Michael Henderson's lighting.  Josie Rourke's production fitted the Donmar space perfectly, if I have a quibble about her direction it is that she has Janet McTeer play Merteuil from the get-go almost like a panto Wicked Queen - all snaking fingers and glaring eyes - oh for Eleanor David's cool, mocking demeanor - but she pulls it back so by the time she turns the tables on Valmont she truly is a fearsome opponent who will win whatever the price.

Dominic West certainly has the right devil-may-care approach to Valmont and, like McTeer, he too rose to the fire and anger of the final scenes well, meeting the knowledge that Merteuil had tricked him into losing everything with a knowing inevitability.  It's just a shame he stumbled over the odd line once too often for it not to be noticeable.

A late replacement for Michelle Dockery, Elaine Cassidy succeeded in the tricky task of making Madame de Tourvel sympathetic and the supporting cast excelled with fine performances from Morfydd Clark as the teenage victim Cécile, Una Stubbs as Valmont's loving aunt, Jennifer Saayeng as the saucy courtesan Émilie and Edward Holcroft was a suitably gauche Chevalier Danceny.

With no news of a West End transfer yet, it is good that this excellent production will be broadcast as part of the NT Live project to selected cinemas on 28th January - click the ad to see if there is a screening at a cinema near you.


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