“It is not as if I go round training young boys for any kind of self-gratification…”
Dangerous is an updated all-male adaptation of the book Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos currently running at the Above the Stag theatre pub in London’s Victoria. Moving the action from 18th century France to modern day London and Bournemouth and from the echelons of aristocratic society to a group of gay men, the story remains one of sexual power games, of seduction, betrayal, lust, revenge and malice. Marcus and Alexander are idle rich ex-lovers, now friends and rivals in trying to outdo each other in their schemes to manipulate the men and lovers who hang around them. As the stakes are raised higher and their games become ever more malicious, their battles for power threaten to engulf the innocents involved in their machinations and even themselves.
To be honest, this play had a lot to live up to as both the original book and the film of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation rank in my all-time favourites. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of the great epistolary novels, it is written entirely in the form of letters between various characters, and there is a nod to this in the occasional reciting of emails between Marcus and Alexander. The updating generally works on some levels, with references to webcams, iPhones and X-Tube as the effective tools for modern day scandal, but in other places not so well. The key motivating factor, the protection of Valmont’s reputation and the risk of public humiliation, just doesn’t ring true in the modern-day context and the straight swop of French upper-class society to gay London isn’t quite enough, in order to capture the true incestuousness of the scene and to give the fear of gossip the power it needs, the play would have to be more tightly located within somewhere like Soho or Vauxhall.
The acting was mostly strong, if a little variable, Luke Harris and Matthew Blake handling their more complex leads of Marcus and Alexander well, their interactions driving the plot along and Jamie Hannon as Daniel and Richard Anthony Mason as the spurned Landon were also interesting to watch. I couldn’t warm to Jon R Harrison’s vapidly camp Jason though or more crucially, Christopher Rorke as Trevor the trainee priest, a bizarrely ‘straight’ character who as the main victim of the machinations at play should be the heart of the work, but an odd accent and a dour seriousness that felt misplaced, it was hard to care too much about him thus removing much of the tragedy. There were also too many flubbed lines for my liking given that we’re a week into the run now
Dangerous captures the emotional blackness at the heart of its protagonists, inexplicably so with Marcus, the reasons for his bitter ennui left unexplored (at least Madame de Merteuil has the excuse of being a woman in a harsh man’s world), but makes the mistake of letting its supporting characters (mostly) get away scot-free. This is partly because of how much I love the original, the sheer physical and emotional devastation of all the characters involved by the story’s end is just breath-taking, and so anything less tends to disappoint. But even with this re-telling, asking us to believe that Jason and Daniel are mere innocents, in no way complicit with their manipulation, seems a step too far: Tim McArthur’s direction therefore wisely sticks to the relationship and confrontations between Marcus and Alexander.
Fiona Russell’s set design cleverly incorporates a double bed which much of the action happens in or around (with quite a few scenes involving nudity) and making the most of the limited space, but whilst I acknowledge the limitations of fringe budgets, it was a little hard to believe that these frightfully rich gay men wouldn’t have had a little variation in their outfits over the course of the few days of the play. So all in all, a fun night to be had here, slightly silly, smutty fun with a vengeful aftertaste. But I’d definitely recommend buying the book afterwards and also renting the dvd of the film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, both will add immeasurably to your lives.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Note: male nudity throughout
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews