Les Liaisons Dangereuses
"Card sharks sit at separate tables, we can never be normal" the Marquise de Merteuil reminds the Vicomte de Valmont in Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, here brilliant revived in Christopher Hampton's adaptation at the Donmar Warehouse.
The joy in this piece is to witness these supreme schemers, perfectly incarnated here by Janet McTeer and Dominic West, play their chess game using the lesser mortals around them as mere pawns. We delight in their cunning but by the end we are reminded of the hollowness at the core of these two. As the Marquise finally realises, the reality is more virtuously mundane: "Unless there is love, pleasure leads inevitably to disgust" she concludes. At the end both are the losers and the trigger for Merteuil's fury is that Valmont actually falls in love.
Josie Rourke is to be praised for this long overdue revival. Hampton gave his adaptation of this rambling epistolary novel, first seen at the RSC in 1985, a dramatic dynamism which is thrilling. The dialogue sparkles but it isn't an exercise in style, rather it is infused with a merciless intelligence.
Some who remember the original West End and Broadway hit, which made stars of Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, may carp that this lacks the high style of the RSC production, but instead Rourke gives it a slightly more contemporary reading and she is blessed in having here two stars in their prime. In Tom Scutt's stunning costumes, seen in all their glory in this intimate space, McTeer and West exude charisma and power and are totally beguiling. Rourke's direction is gloriously deft too with beautiful touches, like how McTeer gently caresses West's ears as she inveigles him into her next scheme or how the passing-on of letters to the dim Cecile is staged.
Thirty years on the sexual politics of the piece strikes one as even more alarming. The text doesn't hide from the sheer callousness of Valmont. His, effective, rape of Cecile isn't shied away from and for Dominic West fans in the audience (of which there were many) it represents an unsettling moment. The piece never judges though and Rourke never attempts any re-framing of the past to suit our modern sensibilities.
The bored duo play their seduction games directly and by proxy: Valmont has to seduce both the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) as part of a wager with Merteuil, while at the same time acting as her agent in seducing the naïve Cecile de Volanges, who is straight out of a convent. That is so Merteuil can humiliate a rival who, when he returns from his travels, will find that his virginal bride to be is more adept at the erotic arts (as taught by Valmont) than any geisha.
Cassidy is truly affecting in capturing her tragic character's internal struggle between love and virtue and there is excellent support too from Adjoa Andoh as the scheming Madame de Volanges, Una Stubbs as Valmont's virtuous aunt and Edward Holcroft (late of London Spy) as the gauche and inarticulate Chevalier Danceny – Merteuil's plaything but in love with Cecile.
Scutt's crumbling chateau is exquisitely lit by Mark Henderson, mostly using large candle lit chandeliers and they go easy on the symbolism of decay. Michael Bruce's Nyman-esque musical underscoring also perfectly enhances the energy of the piece.
This is a jewel of a production and luckily it will be broadcast live in cinemas on Jan 28th. See www.ntlive.com for screening details.