It’s safe to say that this is not something to take your kids to. After all, as they say, kids can be cruel, and a novel like Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses can give a child some fairly dire ideas. Perhaps you have already gleened some of these ideas yourself from film versions such as Dangerous Liaisons back in the 80s with John Malkovich and Glenn Close, or for the Gen Xers more recently from Cruel Intentions. It is a deliciously immoral plot, and it plays to the dank, greasy basements of our innate human tastes for gossip, revenge and sexual adventure, and this stage adaptation of the English translation by playwright Christopher Hampton has lost none of its wit.
As is highlighted in the introductory preface, within 18th century French upper class, the idea of having only one lover was considered a bit dull. So much time, so little to do, so much sex to be had. Why suffice with one? Of course, we know it’s bound to end in tears and – because this is the 18th century – probably death. The fact that the French Revolution would take this grossly decadent period of the French Monarchy to the guillotine within a decade of the novel’s writing only enhances the feeling of climax, no pun intended. They lived a cloistered life in many respects, and this only became more apparent as the royal court wound down. The intimate circular Donmar Theatre is an apt choice then to set a play that relies so much on the discretion and secrecy of its characters.
To the story itself then. The Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), is a pillar of the royal court whose lovers have been many and who credits her authority and success in life to always being cleverer than her counterparts. The Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West) is her sparring partner with whom she shares and compares tawdry escapades. Lovers in a previous life, they now settle for gleefully ruining the fortunes of those around them. With a long list of conquests held proudly to his name, the new object of Valmont’s desire is Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy, No Offence), the very picture of virtue whom he sees as the ultimate challenge for seduction. Merteuil, meanwhile, is determined to corrupt her latest confidant, the sleepy Ceciles (Morfydd Clark), who has recently emerged from a convent. Marquise and Vicomte may think themselves above the grasp of emotion, but when mere projects become romantic rivals, things are going to get tense.
For the power she wields in the time that she resides, Merteuil is a fascinating character who would have been scandalous at the time and whose perverted wisdom survives admirably to this day. Her authority is more than ably portrayed by the terrific McTeer. The comparison here makes for a damning comparison with Valmont, who appears more an overgrown child in this incarnation. West initially navigates the sparsely decorated stage a little uncomfortably. At certain times I saw instead a smart version of Hugh Laurie’s Prince George in The Black Adder, navigating the world without shame or accountability – your typical pantalooned cad.
However, as Valmont’s character fills out beyond the confident facade, West’s performance takes on a muscular desperation that draws us into his psyche as much as it takes us aback. About halfway through the play, the uncomfortable laughs sputter to a halt, innuendo translates to action and becomes all too real for a young, unsuspecting Ceciles against her wishes. It is at this point the mood turns darker, and when Valmont is seen as less highwayman and more rapist, we see what a fine balance between comedy and drama that director Josie Rourke must tread. For the most part she succeeds.
Not to downgrade the performances of Cassidy or Clark, both of whom are excellent, but they haven’t anywhere near as meaty roles as our scheming antiheroes have, and West and McTeer’s chemistry, which settles into a nice groove after the opening scene-setting, is undoubtedly the sustaining influence here. While the ending lacks the sense of occasion it might have had, Rourke largely pulls off the task of keeping 18th century scandal fresh. It’s not the best to thing to come out of National Theatre Live, but it’s another fine and stylish showcase of some of Britain’s finest talent.
NT Live: Les Liaisons Dangereuses will be in selected cinemas from 9th April through Sharmill Films.