Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Theatre review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I don't know how dangerous she is, but this Lesley Aisons certainly seems like a bit of a cow.

Based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses is still best known for its hit film adaptation*, but enough time has passed to bring it back to the stage, as Josie Rourke does at the Donmar. In 18th century France, the nobility's reputations depend on them maintaining a strict morality - or at least appearing to, while getting up to whatever they like behind closed doors. Men can get away with more than women, so the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West,) despite something of a caddish reputation, is still welcome in polite society because of his charm and the frisson of scandal. Not only are the rumours about his sexual conquests true, he has an unsuspected accomplice in the outwardly respectable widow, the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer.) The two were once lovers, but have left that behind to focus on corrupting others: They dare and egg each other on to find the most virtuous young nobles in Paris society, seduce then discard them.

Valmont has two challenges in hand: In revenge for Madame de Volanges (Adjoa Andoh) spreading rumours about him, he will seduce her daughter Cécile (Morfydd Clark,) a naïve convent school girl engaged to a wealthy enemy of Merteuil's, embarrassing both sides by the time the marriage takes place.

He has an even bigger challenge in mind at the same time though, as Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) is famed for her loyalty to her (conveniently absent) husband, and is currently staying with Valmont's aunt (Una Stubbs.) If he can get her into bed, and also get a love letter from her confirming the fact, Merteuil will have sex with him one more time. Hampton's play still works very well thanks to a lot of witty, bitchy lines and the destructive central relationship of the pair who'd rather send each other to bed with half of France than admit how much they depend on each other.

There's a great staging conceit in Tom Scutt's set of the grand houses the story takes place in as they might look now, crumbling and covered in plastic dust sheets, a reminder of how temporary the intrigues dominating these characters' lives are in the grand scheme of things (de Laclos' novel was published only a few years before the French Revolution would bring these kinds of aristocrats' activities to a head. Literally.) Although the candles aren't the main source of lighting, the chandeliers also add to the atmosphere~, as does Michael Bruce's evocative period music.

When the production keeps up the pace it speeds along entertainingly (the 90-minute first act doesn't feel as long as it is) although there's a couple of lulls whenever the energy levels drop, thanks to an underpowered, unfocused Valmont from West. I don't know if he was just having a bad night but he didn't entirely seem to be concentrating tonight, fluffing several lines throughout the evening and even knocking the odd prop over. It's awkward, especially as Valmont is onstage almost constantly, but McTeer's wicked, sultry-voiced Merteuil dominates the show. Backed up by an enthusiastic cast that also includes Edward Holcroft as another, seemingly hopeless suitor of Cécile's, and Theo Barklem-Biggs as Valmont's gleefully seedy valet and sidekick, McTeer easily saves the day.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, is booking until the 13th of February at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

*Cruel Intentions, obvs

~and a bit of an unintentional sense of danger - the overenthusiastic aircon blows the wax into big stalactites on one side of each candle, and they occasionally come crashing to the stage


  1. Any nudity in this one? Thanks

    1. No private parts on display, unless you count West making a bollocks of his lines.