August 01, 1987


Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Christopher Hampton
State Theatre Company

By now everyone and their chien has heard about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It has been cleaning up awards and bouquets ever since it first appeared in London in 1985 and umpteen productions have been performed world wide. Now, with the State Theatre Company’s production we at last have a chance to see what all the fuss has been about.

Playwright Christopher Hampton has taken bold liberties with Choderlos de Ladas’s novel and, apart from a hoary pun on French letters, resists turning Ladas’s stylish classic into a franglais frolic. He has to leap 175 epistles in a single bound and the result is one of pleasing directness, even if it is at the expense of the subtler interplay between co-respondents.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses consists of some sinister plotting between the Vicomtc de Valmont and his erstwhile playmate, the Marquise de Merteuil. As the play opens the Marquise plans revenge on the Comte de Gercourt who has spurned her for the young Cecile de Volanges – and so Valmont is duly despatched to seduce Cecile. He obliges, but his thoughts are elsewhere. The virtuous Madame de Tourvel is a greater challenge to his philandering vanity and, besides, Valmont has fallen in love. It is at that point that the best laid plans go haywire.

Like so much of the ancien regime, these people are perfectly beastly. Laclos certainly thought so. He was an associate of Louis Philippe who, with other aristocrats, voted for the death of the king at the time of the Revolution. But Laclos was a realist about the follies and cruelties of so-called codes of love and Hampton similarly emphasises that unscrupulous though Merteuil is, she brilliantly exposes the cant and duplicity of her time. When she says ‘these are the Eighties’, Hampton’s playful anachronism momentarily reminds us how little has changed.

The RSC originally presented Hampton’s play in a small scale production but, under director John Gaden, State’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been writ large on the Playhouse mainstage. However, with Gaden’s use of the revolve, the turning points of the play get somewhat mechanistic emphasis.

Designer Roger Kirk provides a lavish Beardsley Versailles decor with plenty of foppery and frippery for the players to disport in, but there is not a convincing disparity between how splendid it all looks and how vile the people really are.

Gaden does not seem to have integrated the performances fully and so we are left with a number of contending acting styles. The best is Jennifer Hagan’s as Merteuil. She delivers her lines with clarity and acid poise and we arc almost convinced that in a world run by the men there wasn’t much else a girl could do to get ahead.

As the libertine Valmont, William Zappa is more courtly than lascivious. That doesn’t mean that he ought to be drooling _but the play pivots, often uncomfortably, on sexual menace and a languorous carnality that isn’t really portrayed by any of the players. Zappa, nonetheless is adroit and assured and his scenes with Hagan, particularly as love turns to war, are some of the strongest in the play.

Celia de Burgh as Tourvel has the difficult task of presenting a kind of sensual virtue but her manner is closer to something from the Devils of Loudon. It is psychologically likely that Tourvel would be on the brink of sexual hysteria and while de Burgh gives an obviously considered performance, the vapours need gearing down for the performance to be persuasive.

Myra Noblet and Barbara West lend able support as Mmes Volange and Rosemonde and though a bit unctuous, Terence Crawford is neatly satiric as Azolan, Valmont’s valet. Catherine McClements’ lightly comic Cecile deflects, perhaps too well, the ruthlessness of Valmont’s seduction and Luciano Martucci gives a suitably blustery performance as the callow Danceny. He is also a keen foil to Zappa at duelling time.

Christopher Hampton has shrewdly recognised that Les Liaisons Dangereuses makes winning theatre and John Gaden and the State Theatre Company have conveyed that. It is a play of extremes which this production does not fully span but Hagan’s performance as Merteuil gives force to the disturbing questions she raises about power and desire.

These people may have got it in the neck, as the final guillotine image clunkingly reminds us. But as Ladas’s novel astutely observes, the head and the heart are rarely so easily separated.

Murray Bramwell

The Adelaide Review, August (?) 1987.

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