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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

The Donmar Warehouse production of  Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

In Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the endangered aristocracy whiles away the years leading up to the French Revolution with games of seductive manipulations to humiliate and avenge those who did them wrong.  While Christopher Hampton's adaption of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel has been done before, London's Donmar Warehouse's current production at the Booth Theatre brings in two eminent big-guns, Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber, to portray the scheming protagonists.  Therein lies the problem.  Charisma, code for "liaisons dangereuses," promises sexual magnetism and regretfully, McTeer and Schreiber elicit no fireworks. 

Trading Hampton's crisp repartées, two former lovers,  the devious La Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and famed lady-killer, Le Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber), conspire to avenge previous disappointing lovers.  In a complex scheme, Merteuil suggests that Valmont, renown as an irresistible Lothario, seduce virginal teenaged Cécile (Elena Kampouris), fresh from the convent.  If he succeeds in this nasty little plot, not only are both their former lovers disgraced but Merteuil offers Valmont a personal bonus of intimacy for a romantic evening.    

Valmont, however, has his own plans.  He wants to bed a devout, married young beauty, Madame de Tourvel (Denmark's Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), who is staying with his aunt in the country.  He tells Merteuil that he is drawn by the challenge. " I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want passion, in other words."  Passion eventually will spell doom for the roué, Valmont. 

The two manipulate their prey like pawns in a chess game with disregard for the cruelty they inflict.  The scene when Valmont beguiles young Cécile is especially odious since the girl looks and acts even younger than her 15 protected years.  The seduction turns brutal as his embraces edge close to rape.  Eventually, Valmont himself feels the pain of love and the imperious Merteuil finds herself acknowledging vulnerability. 

Any tale of dangerous love affairs demands charisma and McTeer (A Doll's House), exuding privilege, preens with hauteur, posing, gesticulating and snapping quips.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to accept the stolid and lethargic Schreiber (Glengarry Glen Ross), as a world-class Casanova.  Instead of lusty magneticism, he appears bored and disengaged.  The two banter with clever flirtations but any fire between them has been long extinguished.  After almost three languorous hours, the vicious guiles of Merteuil and Valmont become tiresome.  

Directed by Josie Rourke, the play has entertaining moments seesawing between sharp wit and cynicism.  Rourke elicits sharp portraits from the supporting cast -- the silly childishness of Kampouris as Cécile, Sorensen's graceful modesty as Madame Tourvel.  Tom Scutt's costumes and staging with lighting by Mark Henderson, is evocative of an Ancien Régime where the lingering aristocrats play by their own misanthropic rules just before those rules collapse.  Crystal chandeliers descend on the last of the chateau's distressed furniture draped with plastic.  Between scenes, cast members stroll in, vocalizing aimlessly, and removing pieces of furniture bit by bit.  The Ancien Régime is nearing its last days. 

The original production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1987 starred Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.  A film version starred Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

 

This review also appears in TotalTheater.com