For much of Les Liaisons Dangereuses it feels like watching an oil painting come to life. Tom Scutt’s design is exquisite, with a grand backdrop of artwork and elaborate coving that reflects the opulent stately homes of 18th Century Paris in which the play is set. Yet it’s distressed and crumbling like the morals of the characters, with furniture and props covered in white sheeting creating a sense of history being unveiled.
This is no stuffy period drama, however, owing to the deliciously seductive narrative and colourful characters that plays out with much needed clarity under the direction of the Donmar’s Josie Rourke. Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play is adapted from the novel from Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos, famously made into a film (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988) starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. It explores psychosexual politics in high society France, focusing on the exploits of Le Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil – two ex-lovers who manipulate those around them for their own enjoyment. Playing with love, though, is a dangerous game and someone is bound to get hurt.
This revival balances well the ostentatious setting and the sense of ennui that permeates the air, choreographed set changes with classical singing providing a sense of operatic splendour. More so, the scenes between Dominic West’s Vicomte and Janet McTeer’s Marquise bristle with deep-seated jealousy. It’s clear that there’s an underlying passion between these characters, a passion that almost tragically cannot be fulfilled. The supporting cast play a variety of victims all dressed in stunning costumes and wigs, from Elaine Cassidy’s Madame de Tourvel who falls under the Vicomte’s spell, to Edward Holcroft’s somewhat gormless Chevalier Danceny. And this production doesn’t shy away from the more disturbing moments, in particular the Vicomte seducing a rather naïve and unwilling Cécile Volanges (Morfydd Clark).
West’s performance as the Vicomte is a nuanced offering, displaying overbearing power as he preys on his victims with an insatiable appetite whilst being outwardly sweet and charming, if ever manipulative. You never quite know where his allegiances lie, whether he’s truly in love with Tourvel or just playing like a cat with a mouse. West did stumble on a number of lines during this particular performance, though it didn’t mar the production overall – if anything it added to the laissez-faire nature of the role.
McTeer gives an elegant performance as the Marquise, revelling in the character’s twisted delight as she effortlessly purrs through the dialogue. Together they form a Machiavellian duo who are deeply enjoyable to watch as they scheme and plot, though it’s McTeer who gives the more confident and watchable performance. That’s fitting: in this battle of the sexes it’s the women who ultimately hold power.
Reviewed by Ed Nightingale
Photo: Johan Persson
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at the Donmar Warehouse until 13 February 2016 – www.donmarwarehouse.com. The production will be broadcast live in cinemas, in partnership with National Theatre Live, on 28 January 2016 – www.ntlive.com