Scandal, intrigue and endless seduction – no wonder Choderlos de Laclos’s novel was met with outrage when it was first published in 1782. Yet somehow Les Liaisons Dangereuses has become a classic, revisited and reimagined countless times and in various guises. Most people will remember the film Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfiffer that remains it’s most famous incarnation, but what about the film Valmont with Colin Firth in the title role or Cruel Intentions, a pretty successful high school update with Sarah Michelle Geller and Ryan Philippe that gave a young Reece Witherspoon her big break. There’s something about this story and it’s notions of darkness beneath a thin veil of respectability that appeals to us, and in a period of festive excess and indulgence, how fitting that the Donmar has decided to restage it over Christmas.
Thrown over by her latest lover for the 15 year old Cecile, the Marquise de Merteuil convinces her associate the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce the girl first so her new husband will be shamed on the wedding night. But there’s a side bet as reputed lothario Valmont attempts to seduce the married and honourable Madame de Tourvel who would be his greatest conquest. Merteuil jealous of the growing affection she detects agrees and fearful of losing her power over Valmont agrees to sleep with him if he succeeds with Tourvel. Soon the alliance between the two is on shaky ground and their extensive plots to wreak havoc amongst their acquaintance begins to tear away the veneer of propriety that Merteuil in particular has worked so hard to maintain.
The Donmar’s new production of Christopher Hamilton’s adaptation is beautifully designed by Tom Scutt, combining decadence in the furniture and costumes with a shabby feel to the backdrop. Cleverly as the play opens everything is covered in thin (and entirely modern) plastic wrappers that seem to have a dual purpose – both preserving the items underneath and semi-concealing them, which reflects the nature of morality in this play and the lengths the characters go to preserve a public image. At various points characters tear off the wrappers from furniture and paintings to reveal its truth underneath, much as individuals will be unmasked before the conclusion. Finally Valmont himself is wrapped in a piece of this plastic suggesting a reverse morality for him – the only person whose wicked character is openly known at the beginning and is somehow redeemed by the events of the play.
Another notable feature of the design is the way in which paintings are used in the background to reflect the tone of those moments. For the entire first half which is all about seduction a large scene is propped against the back wall depicting fleshy nudity, but these are replaced by more romantic portraits of respectable women as the second part turns to considerations of love and reputation, before being removed entirely as a starkly lit and wintery conclusion rips away all the artifice of polite society.
Janet McTeer leads the acting honours with a deliciously calculating and frosty performance as the Marquise de Merteuil. It’s a difficult role that requires McTeer to portray her character’s treachery and jealousy beneath a surface respectability which needs to convince the other characters while letting the audience see she’s playing a double game. This is a play dominated by meaty female roles and McTeer’s Merteuil is clearly the master-brain behind all the subplots and intrigues which is fascinating to watch. But this is far from a caricature, McTeer interlaces the barbs with obvious pangs of jealousy, fear and considerable feeling as the betryals start to unravel which makes her Merteuil more human and surprisingly sympathetic in places as a women of a certain age clinging to a seductive power to retain control in a society that almost revers male promiscuity but punishes women for the same approach – how very relevant to today.
Dominic West also brings a welcome new spin to the role of Valmont placing him in a more romantic arc than some earlier interpretations. What West does so well is to balance the swagger of the virile lover with the blindness of a man who doesn’t realise he’s in love. It feels particularly layered in the scenes with Elaine Cassidy as Tourvel as he thinks he’s fooling her into falling in love with him, but actually he genuinely loves her but doesn’t know it, which is a difficult thing to convey to an audience and which West achieves very successfully. Again like McTeer’s performance, this makes him more human and ultimately likeable, making the scenes with Cassidy particularly compelling. But this doesn’t detract from the easy confidence he also elicits with other women which helps to explain why he’s so successful in charming them into bed despite his reputation. The escalation of events in the second half is also well played and his vicious exchanges with McTeer are edged with danger.
With two powerful leads some of the other characters feel a little pale in comparison but the brevity of their appearance lends weight to the idea that there are pawns in the game between Merteuil and Valmont – it barely matters who they are, just cannon fodder for their latest scheme. While other versions have given more time to the secondary characters, here they have just enough existence to give the tale plenty of substance while holding up a mirror to the morality of the central protagonists. And everyone makes the most of their role from the knowing servants who sing beautifully while changing the set, to the more substantial parts.
Best among them is Elaine Cassidy as Madame de Tourvel, a difficult role that requires the actress to be almost pious in her devotion to her honour, while eventually collapsing under the strain of fighting against Valmont’s persistence. Cassidy navigates the histrionics brilliant and never veers into melodrama, instead you see a genuinely pained woman struggling to maintain control which by extension makes Valmont’s love seem worthy and likely – their developing bond gives this production some real heart. The role of Cecile the innocent ingénue is also a pretty difficult one to make believable and she’s often portrayed as a giggling idiot, but Morfydd Clark brings a girlish innocence to the part which seems credible without being too wide eyed. Finally Edward Holcroft does well in a small but pivotal role as music teacher Danceny who becomes enmeshed in the battle between the leads.
The Donmar’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is beautifully staged and brings fresh perspective to the characterisation. While there is still plenty of menace and betrayal to suit the purists, Josie Rourke’s version adds a touch of romance that actually makes the characters more believable and more human, while helping the actors steer clear of pantomime villains. As a play about the destructive nature of passion this more nuanced approach means Rourke has created an ending that packs a punch. Although sold out (as so often the case at the Donmar) the superb Barclays Front Row scheme means if you login at exactly 10am on any Monday during the run you’ll be able to bag an advanced ticket for £10 which is how I got mine. So this combination of fantastic value for money, meaningful design and insightful performances means this production is the perfect end to my theatrical year.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is at the Donmar Warehouse until 13 February. Tickets are sold out but returns will be available at the box office, and every Monday £10 seats are available from the Barclays Front Row Scheme operated via the Donmar website. There will also be an NT Live Broadcast on 28 January.
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