National Theatre Live screenings have brought several treasures from the UK to American shores though splendid high definition screenings available around the country. We have seen several excellent productions through this series, so it was with considerable anticipation that we attended a screening of the new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses on March 6th. Sadly, we might have found more drama (and comedy) in the Democratic debates also televised that evening.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is playwright Christopher Hampton’s (born 1946) adaptation of the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803). The play caused a furor upon its original West End and Broadway debuts, spawning two film versions and several revivals. This production was staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s Covent Garden. It is the home of edgy re-imaginings of Shakespeare and other classics, as well producing newer plays. Artistic Director Josie Rourke (born 1976) directed this production, and she must take the blame for much of its ultimate failure.
To be sure, this is not a play for the faint hearted. In it, aristocratic schemers and libertines La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont plot to bring romantic and social ruin on various rivals, ostensibly for revenge for various slights, but also through sheer love of intrigue and villainy. Valmont seduces young girl Cecile Volanges, while de Merteuil seduces the young girl’s admirer, Le Chevalier Danceny.
All of this is something of side dish to the main seduction, Valmont’s bedding of Madame de Tourvel, a staunchly religious and happily married woman whose very existence is an affront to de Merteuil and Valmont. In short, it is a play of Iagos and their victims, and things end poorly for everyone involved.
The problems with the production are many. Initially, reading about such callous and cynical seductions are one thing in an epistolary novel and quite another watching the near-rape of a 15 year old by our ostensible hero. In addition, since our cast is made up of wolves or sheep, it is nearly impossible to find a point-of-view character with which to relate.
The performances are uniformly dire. As de Merteuil, Janet McTeer (born 1961) has all the subtly of Carol Burnett channeling Norma Desmond. (In fact, that would’ve been an improvement.) With her throaty delivery, sucked-in cheeks and silent screen vamping, McTeer is more risible than menacing. Worse still is Dominic West (1969) as Valmont. Here is a role that requires a silken touch; a gentleman as well as a scoundrel. Valmont must be our idealized darker images of ourselves – the devil we want to be. West plays the role like a bouncer in a Manchester gay bar. It is drearily ill-conceived.
As de Tourvel, Elaine Cassidy is quite sweaty, seeping through a series of gauzy pink dresses. Fortunately for Edward Holcroft, he makes little impression as Danceny and will emerge unscathed; the one break-out performance is Morfydd Clark as Cecile, who manages to be touching and engaging.
Adjoa Andoh, as Madame de Volanges, has the most curious speech impediment, rendering most of her line readings as something out of Elmer Fudd. One wonders what she is doing there. Ditto Jennifer Saayeng, who seems to rest her entire performance on the size of her ample bosom and derriere.
Ultimate responsibility, again, rests with director Rourke, who clearly had no idea of what she wanted or how to get it. Interviewed during intermission, Rourke continually used the word ‘riff,’ saying that the stage set was a riff on the space at the Donmar (‘it’s like a warehouse, then it’s like a loft, and then, we riff on it’s being like a gallery….”), and that the performances were a riff on current sexual politics, and that … well, you get the idea. Everything was a riff on something, but the foundations underlying these riffs seemed nonexistent.
There is a wonderfully nasty piece of work at the bottom of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but this curiously flaccid production can’t seem to lift it up.