Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses Depicts Cruel Art Of Seduction

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 26 months ago
Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses Depicts Cruel Art Of Seduction Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse 4
Dominic West and Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Johan Persson.

Christopher Hampton’s hugely successful adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel is back with a vengeance. First staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 80s, it ran for five years in the West End as well as transferring to Broadway and later being made into the Oscar-winning film Dangerous Liaisons starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close. Set in pre-revolutionary France, it depicts the moral corruption of decadent aristocrats whose games of sexual intrigue turn into deadly revenge.

When the wealthy widow Marquise de Merteuil finds out that her secret lover is about to wed the innocent young girl Cécille, she asks her ex-lover and notorious libertine Vicomte de Valmont to take the 16 year old’s virginity in retribution, and also offers herself as an extra reward. However, Valmont at first refuses because he is more excited by the bigger challenge of ‘conquering’ the virtuously married and religiously devout Madame de Tourvel until he hears that Cécille’s mother has blackened his name with her, when he agrees. But when feelings of love and jealousy become involved with the cold machinations the game careers out of control.

Hampton has done a brilliant job of dramatising Laclos’s darkly humorous dissection of the cynical scheming of the Ancien Régime to expose the ugly hypocrisy and exploitation behind its elegant sophistication. There is also a proto-feminist subtext in the unlikely form of the Marquise de Merteuil who is portrayed as a sort of avenging angel, or scourge, for oppressed women whose only power in such a patriarchal society lies in the manipulation of their sexuality — here carried to extremes.

Josie Rourke’s production featuring flickering candlelight and baroque music nicely balances insidious allure with black comedy, shot through with erotic tension, though the denouement is not quite as tragically shocking as it should be. In Tom Scutt’s set, dust sheets are taken off to reveal a well-appointed décor of handsome furniture and classical nudes, which is fraying at the edges like the protagonists’ tarnished moral character.

Janet McTeer is a magnificently poised and contriving Marquise de Merteuil, revelling in her ability to outmanoeuvre those around her but suggesting a sterile hollowness. Dominic West captures Valmont’s ruthless charm and wicked wit as well as his risk-addicted thriving on the thrill of the chase. Elaine Cassidy (a late replacement for Michelle Dockery) gives a moving performance as the self-conflicted Madame de Tourvel who is undone by her own guileless passion, while Morfydd Clark’s Cécille is touchingly gauche as an adolescent learning lessons not taught in her convent school — both victims of the cruel art of seduction.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is on at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX, until 13 February. Tickets are £10-£37.50. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 21 December 2015