When the UK’s National Theatre organization [NTLive] announced a live satellite transmission of their new production of Christopher Hampton’s wickedly fun Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, I was filled with anticipation. I had never seen a live production of this work. However, my understanding was that Stephen Frear’s 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich & Michelle Pfeiffer stayed pretty close to Hampton’s play. And I loved the film. I loved the wit and the language; and I was extremely frustrated that I was not able to see the original, highly lauded 1985 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company with Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan. I had high, high expectations for the 2016 production. To my relief, it does not disappoint.
First and foremost is the play itself. Hampston’s words are dagger-sharp, razor-focused, and chillingly cutting. As the Bard himself said, after all, “the play’s the thing.” And so it is. I can sing of no higher praise for Hampton’s work but to apply the often-used, yet seldom deserved term “masterpiece.” This is, of course, not to discount the part played by the original source material for the play itself, the 1782 epistolary novel of the same title by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Choderlos de Laclos’ novel of sex and games, of confidences, betrayal, and intrigue set against pre-revolutionary France shocked its audience. Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil [Janet McTeer of the BBC’s The Honourable Woman] and Vicomte de Valmont [Dominic West of HBO’s The Wire] now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil challenges Valmont to corrupt the innocently-fresh Cecile de Volanges [Morfydd Clark] before her wedding night but Valmont himself has targeted the highly-principled, beautiful and virtuous Madame de Tourvel [Elaine Cassidy of the BBC’s The Paradise], a highly-tempting target for Valmont given her role as the picture-perfect model of the married Christian woman. Toying with others’ hearts and reputations, these merciless aristocrats’ emotional skeletons and social reputations may indeed prove more fragile than they initially supposed.
So much for the play itself. The text is lean protein, without a sliver of fat. Completely filling and gluttonous. It is simply one of the Twentieth Centuries’ best plays, accounting for its numerous productions worldwide -- in all forms -- from a straight period piece to an ab-fab mid-century take in the stylistic language of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Now on to the production at the Donmar Warehouse itself.
Josie Rourke’s new production is a knock-out. What an innovative director she is. Her prior directorial work at the Donmar Warehouse, Coriolanus, blew my mind! For the Shakespeare play on the body politic, Rourke set the 15th century-written Coriolanus in a somewhat nebulous, yet very modern and minimal setting. It worked, highlighting the current political applications of Shakespeare’s cutting socio-political commentary.
Now, Rourke’s take on Hampton’s play is straight and standard, keeping the 20th-century-written play in it’s 16th-century-period setting. I think this is the correct decision. [As the director herself has stated at the interview she gave telecast during the play’s interval, moving the play into a modern setting takes away its ironic social sting and its perceived modernity.] But staying within the stated period of the work does not mean that Rourke has abandoned her typically-inventive directing style. In fact, by combining a 16th century setting (touches of the baroque in a Fragonard screen or candle-lit chandeliers, etc.) within a very modern-feel (minimal walls, the modern plastic wrap so effectively used, etc.), she highlights the theatrical, spectator-sport quality of the chamber piece itself.
Specifically, period customs are employed but now set against a decaying and minimal backdrop of a French chateau, complete with peeling paint and floor-propped portrait paintings. It is a stage set eager to convey a sense of transition. To the viewing audience, the set design poses the internal question: “have the occupants lost their fortunes and the estate set for a public auction?” As a turn of genius, this design devise is used not only to convey a sense of transition -- and in the original source material the sense of the impending bloodbath of the French Revolution is very real indeed -- but these propped portraits also convey a sense of the spectator sport. In other words, the portraits convey the feeling that they are observing the occupants of these French spaces. They are spies, somehow privy of these private goings on. Skillfully, exclusive to the satellite transmission audience in worldwide cinemas, given the intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse and the close proximity of the edge of the stage with the sitting audience of the theatre, when the camera operator takes a scene of the stage action at the front edge of the stages, glimpses of audience faces are visible. I could not help but think that they, too, are like the portrait paintings propped against the back stage set, witnessing the action in horror, amusement, and ultimately, in judgment.
Now I return to the use of candles in the production. Candlelight not only illuminates the intrigue theme of the work so effectively, giving us the sense of intimacy and secrecy, it also heightens the narrative tension. As the play draws to its inevitable and tragic conclusion, the players, dramatically and significantly, snuff out the candles one by one. It gave me a very eerie feeling so right for the play.
The acting was impeccable. Janet McTeer as the Marquise de Merteuil was spot-on. Her timing, delivery, and even the tone and timber of her voice was perfection. Deliciously wicked. And so too was Elaine Cassidy as Madame de Tourvel. Effectively clenched throughout the first part of the play, when she finally makes the purposeful choice to disregard her moral purity and religious constraint, she relaxes and allows love to enter. Convincingly done. I cannot say the same about Dominic West as Vicomte de Valmont. Mr. West is a fine actor; however, the role required a more-convincing actor, say in the league of Mr. Rickman or Mr. Malkovich. This was my only disappointment. Nonetheless, given this time of upheaval in the US with the lack of racial diversity with the Oscar nominations, I want to acknowledge the theatre folks of the UK. In the current production, we saw a wide range of diverse actors, even with the blonde Cecile de Volanges’s mother being played by black actor Adjoa Andoh. See it at a theater near you.