Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Christopher Hampton from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos
Playhouse Theatre
(2003)

This production of Christopher Hampton's amazingly successful adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel has a feel of happy families. Whether by accident or design, most members of the cast have theatrical parents or siblings.

The low-budget set gives a tone that is hard to escape. It is bare rather than filled with appropriately lavish ostentation and even with a revolve, leads to slow scene-changes. Its bareness also means that the sound echoes coldly rather than drawing the audience into the sexual intrigues.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a wonderfully daring work with its promotion of promiscuity and cruel attack on the hypocritical moral standards of late eighteenth century France. The latter is best personified by Madame de Volanges, played by a suitably buttoned up Sarah Woodward.

Neither Polly Walker as Madame de Merteuil nor Jared Harris as the Vicomte de Valmont is convincing as either wittily wicked plotter or seductive lover. Their acting has a very modern feel and loses the sense of costume drama that the play requires.

One cannot see why they would have succeeded in attracting the young Danceny (Laurence Penry-Jones) nor the overly bold Cecile Volanges (Olivia Llewellyn). The best performance comes from Emilia Fox as the virtuous Madame de Tourvel whose life becomes a battle with her repressed passions. Her inner battles to resist the irresistible are constantly visible on Miss Fox's face as the play develops.

The ending too lacks bite as, while Valmont gets his albeit noble comeuppance, Madame de Merteuil does not. In the original, she ends a beaten woman, horribly disfigured and bankrupt, not gleefully triumphant.

Tim Fywell, better known for his screen work, never succeeds in injecting passion into the performances of his cast and despite some good moments, the humour is often missing. The real highlight is the climactic sword-fight, arranged by Malcolm Ranson, that is a classic of its rather esoteric art.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Reviewer: Philip Fisher