Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton
Presented by the Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Sam Strong.
A story of passion, power, debauchery and moral dissolution, Les Liaisons Dangereuse contains near irresistible themes. Written by Christopher Hampton in 1985 and based on the pre – revolutionary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, its focus is upon the libertine seducer par excellence the Vicomte de Valmont (a vigorous Hugo Weaving exhibiting great finesse) and his female counterpart the Marquise de Merteuil (Pamela Rabe in a chilling interpretation). Both are rich and bored and though the story’s original 18th century setting has been abandoned, there is no doubt that what we are seeing here is an equivalent moral bankruptcy.
A heartless game of revenge, lust and competition between Valmont and Merteuil has as its prizes the callous corruption of the 15 year old former convent girl Cecile (with Geraldine Hakewill bringing convincing emotional transparency) and the seduction of Mme.de Tourvel (a nuanced Justine Clark), a married woman whose virtue and religious dedication are renowned. However, those dubious achievements will not suffice. In order to satisfy both Merteuil’s desire for revenge and to excite Valmont’s jaded nature added piquancy is required – the seduced must be more than willing to comply.
In a production that has so much to recommend it, it seems unfortunate that a belief that Valmont is capable of real love for de Tourvel is only partly realized, perhaps because of the particular combination of Weaving’s passionate energy with Clark’s relative lassitude. True feeling on the part of Valmont simply requires too great a suspension of disbelief, while costume designer Mel Page’s decision to dress de Tourvel (despite Merteuil’s unflattering description of her) in quite such a matronly fashion (her contemporary take on the costumes being otherwise pitch perfect) does little to assist.
Director Sam Strong’s beautifully paced production emphasises gratification via the wielding of power rather than via lust. The aim is to win (though whether in the end the character seen to be quite literally holding the cards is in fact the victor is more than questionable). Valmont’s triumphs are but necessary diversions en route to his ultimate prize, a night with Merteuil herself, the only woman it seems who has so far eluded him. The two remain locked in a horrible dance in which no one is spared. Indeed, save for some delicious scenes between Valmont and the courtesan Emily (an appropriately abandoned Ashley Ricardo), Strong’s production is driven not so much by the erotic as a vicious desire for domination. The ability of one unscrupulous individual to bend another’s will, to coolly create circumstances which will cause utter submission and in so doing the abandonment of all previously held values is perhaps the only means by which a pleasurable frisson can be added to a life of interminable ennui.
Designer Dale Ferguson’s set ably creates an appropriate ambience, combining a stripped back 18th century décor with the sense of a claustrophobically carpeted, closed world where a more common embrace of morality has long since been abandoned. This world is a place, ostensibly of mannered refinement, where in actuality the law of the jungle holds sway, with power exercised not though brute strength but through ruthless, albeit artful deception. The fact that so many of the characters appear swathed in fur in the final scene is perhaps a nod not merely to the characters’ undoubted affluence but to their ultimate natures; primitive, amoral and corrupt.
Season: April 5 – June 9