Betrayal. Seduction. Revenge.
To them, it’s just a game
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” Sir Walter Scott’s oft-used expression on the complexities of lies and falsehoods, has never been more appropriate on so many different levels, than in describing the methodical plotting and manipulative shenanigans of Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons).
Shakespeare Theatre Company presents Théâtre de l’Atelier’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses directed by John Malkovich in a limited run at STC’s Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C., December 6 – 9, 2012. Presented with English surtitles, and adapted to a 21st century setting, this French-revival stage play is a part of the ‘STC Presents Series,’ which brings international productions to theatregoers.
Almost 25 years after Malkovich achieved international acclaim in Stephen Frear’s Academy Award winning film, Dangerous Liaisons, the actor now steps into the director’s shoes with a French language version of the original play in Paris. He has created an exciting ensemble with new, young talent from acting schools in France.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a play written by Christopher Hampton, (who also wrote and won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons), and is adapted from the 1782 novel of the same title by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Marie Antoinette was Queen, and France was under the rule of King Louis XVI when Choderlos de Laclos wrote Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and it was the first and only novel of one of the most enigmatic authors in French literature.
The play like the classic epistolary novel is highly theatrical and transcends time. This is an eternal love story. It’s about love and passion, overpowering, and destructive passion … destructive to the point of death. In a radical update, Malkovich has turned to modern-day texting – messaging on cell phones and tablets to transpose the correspondences that ensnare and eventually unravel, and reveal the debauchery and demise of the characters.
A heartless – and dare I say soulless woman (Marquise de Merteuil) challenges her former lover (Vicomte de Valmont) to seduce an innocent girl (Cecile de Volanges). He accepts the challenge. The plot thickens when the shameless seducer turns his sights on still another woman – a virtuous young wife who is unable to resist him. She is the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, played with skilled finesse and magnetic, raw energy by Pauline Moulene. Watching Madame de Tourvel, who knows that Valmont will seduce and abandon her, but then allows herself to be seduced anyway, is a cloying discomfort, because he is simply so much better at seduction than she is at resistance.
The final irony of the plot is that true love appears when it is sure to cause the greatest unhappiness.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a claustrophobic story of a great magnitude that is based almost entirely on feelings, emotions, and intellect. There is no real action in ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses until the end. It’s a wordplay thriller, a sardonic tale of lust and greed. There are mind games, exploitation, and vengeance – and all the pieces are set up to humiliate and destroy. Heroines like Marquise de Merteuil and libertines like Vicomte de Valmont doesn’t come along every day . . . (luckily for all the young lovers). This is a chess game. A competitive perfect storm of manipulation, and innocence, control, and surrender.
There are no winners. And, it is a game that Valmont and Merteuil need to play.
For a story steeped in deception, it was refreshing to see the interactive energy with the actors remaining on stage for the entire performance – nothing is hidden from the audience’s (or characters) sight. Malkovich has effectively created a world, in which the only goal is to indulge one’s selfishness, and his nuanced direction of this depraved amorality cleverly unveils the character Merteuil -Valmont as really one entity – like a two-headed beast.
Valmont and Merteuil, while similar in their game playing, are very different in their approach to life and matters of the heart.
Valmont’s character arc, and what Yannick Landrein does with this enigmatic role, is the compelling drive of this production. His relaxed, natural ease on stage is inviting, and the energy and liberation from within kept me on the edge of my seat. Landrein is a splendid sexy, as he humanizes the elegant and predatory, Valmont – a man of no morals. Libertine. He tells lies and pulls heartstrings. Pleasure and the vulgarities of vanity dominates him – it’s not the other way around. He starts out believing that love and relationships are a game he dominates, and he ends up being ensnared by his own manipulations. Unlike the Frears’ film where the story is told more from Glenn Close’s character (Marquise de Mertuil) point of view, Malkovich’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses has Valmont as the centerpiece and narrative heart of the story.
Julie Moulier’s tight portrayal of Marquise de Merteuil – the virtuoso of deceit – is merciless, staid, and full of ennui. Her deceptive, outwardly unemotional and methodical, practiced detachment is impeccable. Merteuil is perceived as a cold woman with principles, who prides herself on self knowledge and control. And, she controls everything … hiding her true emotions and revealing only what is useful to disclose. For her, power over ourselves and others is real. Pleasure is unattainable, and vanity and happiness is incompatible.
In her final scenes with Valmont, when her trembling behind the emotional mask becomes unglued, Moulier is at her best. We see the fire beneath the ice.
The rest of the cast embraces the text with abandon, and there are even several injections of farce and humorous repartee, most notably displayed by Lazare Herson-Macarel (Azolan), who is as entertaining as he is reliable. Mabo Kouyate as Chevalier Danceny is a breath of fresh air. His interpretation of the character takes Danceny to new heights, and his pleasing glee, and wistful adoration is fetching.
Both Agathe Le Bourdonnec (Cecile De Volanges) and Pauline Moulene (Madame de Volanges) are excellent as the daughter and mother duo caught up as prey in the twisted sexual deception of Merteuil – Valmont. And, the delightful, Lola Naymark (Emile) is stunning, exhibiting a free spirit and freedom rarely braved on stage – a performance that won’t soon be forgotten.
From the onset, the collaborative approach to the experimental mis-en-scene canvas is visually evident in Pierre-Francois Limbosch’s Set Design – which remains true to spirit of the novel and the lives of the characters. The sparse decor and muted brown and blue colors bring us into this strange world, and whirlwind of feelings and bleak emotional landscape. Mina Ly’s costume, Hair, and Makeup design is an avant-garde mix of period pieces and styles with a more modern appeal. The flawless lighting design by Christophe Grelie was the production highlight for me. Right away there is an ambiance of natural light, and a vibrancy and confidence to his lighting style. Noticeable lighting changes were virtually nonexistent. There was no need to show off. The lighting design is concentrated on the story, which reflects the power of the words and the imagination of the performances.
This is more than an intriguing, artificial costume drama. Les Liasons Dangereuses is an arousing and emotionally exhausting war of words that is unrelenting as it races for the inevitable conclusion.
Desire is the promise of pure pleasure. After the pleasure that unites comes the disgust that pushes it apart. Desire, pleasure, disgust – It’s a law of nature.
But love can change all that.(And it certainly does).
As Madame de Rosemunde says to Madame de Tourvel in a revealing moment of heartfelt truth, “Men enjoy the happiness they feel. We can only enjoy the happiness we give.”
We accept the love we think we deserve.
Enjoy this guilty pleasure.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Les Liasons Dangereuses plays through December 9, 2012, at Shakespeare Theatre Company at Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington D.C. For tickets, purchase them online, or call the box office at (202) 547-1122.