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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES
at Donmar Warehouse

DANCE OF DESIRE
By SAM MARLOWE

  Morfydd Clark and Janet McTeer/ Ph: Johan Persson

Sometimes corruption is so seductive – and Josie Rourke’s production of this exquisite play by Christopher Hampton is hard to resist. Hampton’s writing is as delicate, intricate and beautifully phrased as a tinkling, minor-key melody played on a harpsichord. It requires both a gossamer touch and a sinewy toughness. We must lick our lips as we lap up the sexual games of its pre-revolutionary French aristocrats, and we must taste blood, too. Though one or two moments lack sufficient weight, on the whole Rourke juggles the dubious morality and the sexual politics, the pleasure and the pain, with consummate dexterity. And as the two prime players in this high-stakes. savage entertainment, Janet McTeer’s Marquise de Merteuil and Dominic West’s Vicomte de Valmont make a handsome, ruthless and mutually destructive – and self-destructive – pair.
 
Tom Scutt’s design is a glittering vision of sumptuous decay. It’s ablaze with candles, twinkling and dripping in jewel-coloured chandeliers, and gradually snuffed out as the tone darkens throughout the evening. Gauzy plastic dust sheets shroud the ornate furniture, torn away by gliding, shadowy actors. It’s as if, from our vantage point in the 21st century, we’re watching a company of ghosts rehearse the events before us, holding up an unflattering gilded, age-spotted mirror to our own mores.
 
McTeer’s Merteuil is a fascinating creature – a beautiful, clever woman, twisted by boredom, malice and the restraints of womanhood in a society that admires male sexual appetite but abhors it, and with it the loss of reputation, in females. One second kittenish, the next a panther, she purrs and prowls, her elegant fingers describing lace-like intrigues in the air. When she stands over the deflowered Cecile Volange (Morfydd Clark) – a young girl she has persuaded Valmont to seduce, in order to humiliate Cecile’s prospective husband, who assumes he’s wedding a convent-closeted virgin – her eyes scintillate with cruelty. Meanwhile West – though his command of the filigree of the language isn’t quite equal to McTeer’s – has a darkly silken virility and a wicked wit that make his Valmont credibly attractive and lethally charming, a man of refined but voracious appetite who little suspects his urges will lead him into love, leaving him exposed and vulnerable.
 
There’s strong work, too, from Elaine Cassidy as Madame de Tourvel – the virtuous married woman Valmont bets Merteuil he can bed, but who ends up piercing his heart. Her initial, helpless succumbing is shocking, her body twisting and bucking in convulsions of self-disgust and torment. Her eventual capitulation, however, is no swooning resignation to her fate. Instead she straddles West, completely abandoned to her own awakened passions.
 
The play’s treacherous, two-faced dance of desire is one in which men and woman are timelessly engaged. But it’s nonetheless a shame that, perhaps in a bid to emphasise that enduring pertinence, Rourke dispenses with the play’s final, ominous image of the shadow of the guillotine. And there are times when the thread that binds Merteuil and Valmont together isn’t steely enough. It should be fine, but cuttingly sharp, and it’s occasionally more of a playful cat’s cradle here, not quite taut enough to trap. Merteuil’s bitter admission – “I still love you, you see” – when she realises she has forever lost Valmont to Tourvel, just doesn’t seem to cost McTeer as dearly as it should. But this is still a ferociously compelling production, piquant, intoxicating and thrillingly nasty.

 


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