Deceit, revenge, power and sex, is what I would say if I had to sum up Les Liaisons Dangereuses in four words. La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West) use their powers of seduction to ruin other people’s lives for their own entertainment, reporting back to each other on their conquests and setting each other new challenges. Their relationship turns sour however in the second half, when Merteuil begins to suspect that another woman has taken her place as Valmont’s favourite.
The shift in the play was conveyed excellently in this production by the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke. The play was partly lit by candlelight, with four chandeliers hanging above the stage. At the turning point in the play, the chandeliers were lowered and the candles were all extinguished by the cast, with Merteuil blowing out the final candle. Another example of clever design was the use of portraits; during the first half there were many romantic nude portraits scattered around the set, reflecting the seduction that was taking place. Towards the end of the play when a tragedy occurs, there was a portrait of the Tricolore flag in a scene of war, foreshadowing the French Revolution that was soon to occur, and the end of the aristocratic society in which the play (adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’ novel by Christopher Hampton) is set. I wish I’d paid more attention to the portraits throughout, as I wonder whether I missed any other subtleties!
The cast all gave very strong performances, with Dominic West still managing to be somewhat likeable despite playing a rather detestable character at times. Janet McTeer however, was outstanding. Seductive, sexy, powerful…wonderful. The script was extremely witty, with excellent banter between Merteuil and Valmont, and the costumes were beautiful.
Despite the novel being written in 1782, and this production was also set in that period, in many ways it is very modern, and this was discussed during the interval by Josie Rourke and Christopher Hampton. The play has strong feminist undertones, with Mertreuil explaining how as a woman publicly she doesn’t appear to have any power, but she can manipulate and flirt and seduce, and as she explains to Valmont
‘I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own’
The play began and finished with a card game, and despite the tragedy at the end of the play Mertreuil was still holding her cards, ready to continue playing the game. The characters in the play also discussed the difference between love and sex, and revolutionary for the time discuss the pleasure that both men and women can have from sex. Again very modern.
One difficult scene to watch in the play was Valmont’s seduction of the young Cécile (Morfydd Clark). I think it would be a very good scene to show young people in order to discuss the meaning of ‘consent’.
This was an excellent production of a witty and dark play. More please, NT Live!