“The longer I live, the more I’m tempted to think that the only moderately worthwhile people in the world are you and I”
It’s 30 years since Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ extraordinary epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses premiered in Stratford, took the West End and Broadway by storm and was turned into the most seductive of period movies in Dangerous Liaisons. Since then, the emotional war games of former lovers the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont have rarely been seen but Josie Rourke’s has revived them just in time for Christmas at the Donmar.
The decaying grandeur of the French aristocracy in 1782 – just a few years away from révolution breaking out remember – is neatly suggested by the peeling walls and dust sheets that litter Tom Scutt’s set. And their enduring decadence remains obvious in the still-luxurious quality of their clothing (some gorgeous costume work here) but Scutt and Rourke make clear that the lifestyle being pursued by Merteuil, Valmont and their ilk is doomed, regardless of how their games play out.
And what malicious, malevolent games they are. Having fallen in love with the film at an impressionable age, I’d remembered it as deeply sexy but what is striking here (to my marginally more experienced eye at least) is the darkness at the heart of the power plays. As they prowl the stage and flip between social paragons and predators with devilish duplicity, Janet McTeer and Dominic West hide none of the cruelty and brutality of their characters, seduction suddenly becomes much less, well, seductive.
With this constant reframing of what I thought I knew, Les Liaisons Dangereuses thus became a different prospect. McTeer’s magisterial, murmurating Merteuil is a tightly coiled creature, lashing out at what she sees at societal injustice, but ultimately simply settling personal scores with something akin to pettiness. West’s superb Valmont is a similarly dark beast, made complex by the conflict he begins to feel for latest victim Madame de Tourvel, but crucially not redeemed by it.
For Morfydd Clark’s skitterish Cécile is less seduced than corrupted by his rapacious sexual advances, and the upheaval with which he besmirches Elaine Cassidy’s subtly wonderful Tourvel is total. The moment she receives his touch for the first time is one of genuine revelation on her face, a passionate freshness of feeling he can scarcely comprehend. Whereas when Merteuil and Tourvel cross paths, McTeer leaves us in no doubt that she recognises the immense threat posed to her scheming.
Adjoa Andoh rounds off a great year for her with the busybodying Madame de Volanges, Una Stubbs and her rainbow-bright laughter is a delight as Madame de Rosemonde and I enjoyed Silk’s Theo Barklem-Biggs’ brief scenes as Valmont’s manservant more than Edward Holcroft (recently in London Spy) as a slightly too anaemic Chevalier Danceny. And whilst I liked the snatches of Michael Bruce’s music sung live in the many scene changes, the fussiness to the constant restaging saps the pace somewhat (I did see a preview so this may well have tightened up).
The final scene didn’t quite work for me either (this was the one area where the better-than-you’d-think teen version Cruel Intentions fell down too). Expectation played its part here as the way in which both the book and film end is impressively unremittingly bleak for everyone concerned but Rourke’s shift to a more impressionistic staging is a little distracting and I didn’t feel the desolation that the finale seems to merit. Still, I’m only being picky because said book and film are such favourites and I was certainly glad for the chance to see Les Liaisons Dangereuses on stage finally and with Cassidy, McTeer and West all in such fine form.