Sexual intrigues among amoral aristocrats while the tumbrils await
For most of us back in 1988, in the absence of NT Live or anything like it, Stephen Frear’s film Dangerous Liaisons was our first encounter with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Christopher Hampton had based the film’s script on his own play, first staged in 1985* and taken from a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, an artillery officer, published in 1782. Hampton has since written numerous screenplays (notably Atonement), stage plays and translations. His appearance at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2013 to discuss the Académie Française was the subject of a post here.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been revived several times in recent years and was recently broadcast by NT Live from its current run at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Cleverly staged in their small space, it reveals how the cynical Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), in league with the equally amoral Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), sets about the seduction of two women, one young and naïve, Cécile Volanges, the other married and virtuous, Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy). These manoeuvrings do not end well for anyone. Unlike de Laclos, we know that the French Revolution was almost upon these characters, one might think no more than some of them deserve, but on reflection they could all be regarded as being trapped in their class and time, particularly the women.
The Donmar setting projects into the audience, some of whom can be glimpsed in the across-stage camera angles – only mildly disconcerting in the second act to see someone finishing their G&T. Les Liaisons Dangereuses ends at the Donmar on 13 February. There will be NT Live Encore showings this month onwards – well worth seeing for the excellent acting, particularly McTeer and Cassidy.
*In the original 1985 RSC Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which after Stratford went to London and Broadway, the part of the Vicomte de Valmont was taken by Alan Rickman who died on 14 January 2016.