One could easily call Les Liaisons Dangereuses The Year of Living Dangerously. For one can hardly deny that the aristocrats in Christopher Hampton's play, based on the 1782 Pierre Choderlos de Laclos novel, are nothing, if not risk-taking game players in late 18th Century France. Soon enough their intrigues and merriments will be taken up, warding off the more dangerous tendencies of the French Revolution but for the moment their hearts and minds are fully involved in games of seduction and betrayal, topped by a generous helping of spite and malice.
And none play the game better than La Marquise de Merteuil (Laura Linney) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels), one-time lovers and confidants. The pawns in their battle, are, for the most part, La Presidente de Tourvel (Jessica Collins), Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer) and Le Chevalier Danceny (Benjamin Walker). Other parties of interest include Madame de Rosemonde (Sian Phillips) and Madame de Volanges (Kristine Nielsen).
Heart-breaking duplicity, cruel and unusual treatment of supposed lovers, careless and hurtful behavior all abound in the service, so it seems, of oneupmanship and petty jealousies. But all are losers in this game, no matter what appearances might dictate.
I must confess that the original stars of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan , have exerted a powerful hold on my imagination and emotions since I first saw the play in London in the eighties. No one did languid as well as Rickman, and Duncan's combination of hard-edged sensuality mixed with emotional coldness were hard to beat. I must also admit, now, that Daniels' performance as Valmont is every bit as good as his predecessor. He fits his actions to the words, his words to the actions, as a noted playwright once suggested. He is, indeed, mesmerizing. Linney, for her part, is good-when is she not? She definitely commands the stage. But there is a toughness lacking in her demeanor.
As for the others, all acquit themselves admirably, with special kudos to Gummer, for her childlike/womanly ways and Phillips, for her worldweary ones. Collins excels as a particularly vulnerable Madame de Tourvel. And Derek Cecil is an especially adept man servant. British director Rufus Norris has capably handled the action, walking a fine line between comedy and drama. The sets by Scott Pask and costumes by Katrina Lindsay easily convey the seductive mood of the piece. And credit must be given to fight director Rick Sordelet, for giving us a very convincing duel between Valmont and Danceny. All in all, a revival that more than lives up to its glorious past.