A decadent medley of lust, jealousy and sexual empowerment, Les Liaisons Dangereuses feasts on the dark side of human desires. This acclaimed stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton, based on the French epistolary novel of 1872, charts the corrupt pursuits of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two aristocrats with a competitive commitment to infidelity. Now making its first return to London since 1985, this revival at the Donmar Warehouse proves just as intoxicating a tale of scheming and seduction as it was thirty years ago.
The kernel of the play concerns the complex relationship between the Marquise and the Vicomte, both rivals and ex-lovers. They spend their lives wielding sex as an instrument of revenge, punishment and humiliation on others, seemingly to indulge in their need for power and amusement, and both complicit in each other’s efforts. The action of the play begins as the Marquise challenges Valmont to seduce the young, convent-bred Cecile in revenge for having been rejected by her fiancé. But in the midst of accomplishing his task, Valmont becomes drawn to the respectable, widowed Madame de Tourvel, who becomes his next ‘target’ – and, suddenly finding his conscience tested, he falls hopelessly in love.
The sight of these two noble yet salacious figures so deviously plotting the degradation of others seems to have retained its dramatic power several decades later. But there is more high comedy than drama in this play, which succeeds most when it manages to elicit laughs from the audience. Tom Scutt’s elegant period set design, the sumptuous room of a dilapidated French manor house, hints at the intrinsic boredom of a decadent, untroubled lifestyle. It would seem that the Marquise and the Viscomte’s machinations are a desperate, improved form of own afternoon fun.
And yet the play, which is never moralising nor indeed flippant, also provides a fiery, gripping depiction of emotional self-destruction. Underlying all of the Marquise and the Vicomte’s calculated manoeuvres is the unspoken but apparent reality of their all-consuming love for one another. When the Marquise, normally always one step ahead, discovers the sincerity of Valmont’s affections for Madame de Tourvel, her response is war. Treating love as a battleground to be conquered, her character becomes the frightening epitome of repressed desire manifesting itself in a need for dominance, with fatal consequences.
No doubt the original version of this play with Alan Rickman as the Vicomte, Lindsay Duncan as the Marquise and Juliet Stevenson as Madame de Tourvel is still seared in the West End’s memory. But here Dominic West, Janet McTeer and Elaine Cassidy respectively are more than worthy predecessors of such marvellous roles. In particular McTeer, who oozes stage presence like no other actress of our time, is ideally cast, giving one of the most vivid portrayals of a woman scorned. Dominic West, ripe with sexual gluttony, is both entertaining and engaging as the Vicomte, and Elaine Cassidy perfectly conveys the dilemma of a woman caught between her passion and her honour.
Charged with tension and full of fire, this production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an excellent stage drama finely directed by Josie Rourke. A classic piece of theatre rendered with full flair, it’s pure theatrical gratification – enjoy.