Les Liaisons Dangereuses
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Dominic West returns to the Donmar for Josie Rourke's enjoyable revival of this saucy classic
Ooh la la! Christopher Hampton’s 1980s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel about jaded French aristocrats getting all voulez-vous coucher avec moi is more celebrated than performed these days. This is for several reasons: being defined by a very famous film; slight British embarrassment about a play that features people in wigs banging; and perhaps some nagging contemporary problems with its approach to the topic of consent.
Certainly the scene that made me feel most uncomfortable was the one in which middle-aged cad Le Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West) forces himself upon 15-year-old virginal ex-nun Cécile de Volanges (Morfydd Clark) until she decides she likes it. To be fair, Hampton’s play is nothing if not even-handed in its depiction of the machinations of the two sexes. And rightly or wrongly, the fact this revival has a female director – Donmar boss Josie Rourke – feels like a mitigating factor. Still, it’s hard to imagine it would have been written this way in 2015.
Anyway, you can overthink these things, especially as by the end ‘Les Liaisons Dangéreuses’ has got a long way from glorifying Valmont and his frenemy La Marquise de Merteuil’s obsession with using sex as a cold, miserable weapon.
Rourke, by contrast, is a director who knows how to give audiences a fun night: her production is less self-consciously sexy than the film, but much more fun, zipping along with Wildean panache, lifted by snippets of wordless song from the cast. West is great as Valmont, a booming, lusty bounder with a boyish charm: he may be a massive sex pest, but he’s an incredibly likeable one. However the show really belongs to Janet McTeer: she is sensational as Merteuil, a mix of goggle-eyed malevolence, cruel amusement, towering intellect, seething boredom and harsh, stark sex appeal.
There is the odd bit where their convoluted romantic machinations – which involve Valmont seducing the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) – threaten to get a bit tedious, but mostly it’s a thrill, and it all falls pleasingly into place in the second half. ‘Les Liaisons…’ is a splash dated for sure, but it’s hardly without resonance in our own jaded age. And I suppose its ultimate message – that it’s dangerous to deny true love – could be considered quite Christmassy, if you squint a bit.