Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 30, 2016
The Donmar Warehouse Production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton. From the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Directed by Josie Rourke. Set & costume design by Tom Scutt. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Soudn design by Carolyn Downing. Composer & music supervisor Michael Bruce. Movement Director Lorin Latarro. Original Donmar Production Movement Director Arthur Pita. Fight Director Richard Ryan. Hair, wigs & make up by Campbell Young Associates. Cast: Janet McTeer, Liev Schreiber, with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Raffi Barsoumian, Ora Jones, Elena Kampouris, Katrina Cunningham, Josh Salt. Joy Franz, David Patterson, Laura Sudduth, Rachel de Benedet, Ron Menzel, and Mary Beth Peil.
There are all sorts of things you could reasonably call the revival that just opened at the Booth, but Les Liaisons Dangereuses is among the least plausible. Sure, that may be the actual title of the celebrated Christopher Hampton play in question, as well as the scandalous, salacious 1782 epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos from which it was adapted. But there's practically nothing in this Donmar Warehouse production, which has been directed by Josie Rourke and stars Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber, that touches on danger of any recognizable kind.
That is, unsurprisingly, a problem. Hampton's essential critique (amplified from the original work) is about class warfare, the destructive games with which our "betters" occupy their time while we suffer in the streets. For that to come through, the true nastiness of the lead characters, the Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Schreiber), must be indisputable, for all intents and purposes indifference bordering on violence.
Indifference hits here in a considerably less effective way. Although Merteuil and Valmont are ex-lovers, and the script gives you every reason to believe that they have not completely gotten over each other, McTeer and Schreiber provide no hint of the toxic chemistry that might have brought the two together in the first place, let alone inspired them to live the "scorched earth" lifestyle that results in the obliteration of others inside and outside the bedroom.
Their victims frequently occupy both territories: Madame de Tourvel (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), whose "capture" Merteuil will reward Valmont with one final night together (by far his greatest wish); Cécile (Elena Kampouris), a young girl freshly pulled out of a convent, who's ripe for deflowering; and Danceny (Raffi Barsoumian), Cécile's intended, in whom Merteuil becomes quite interested. And when the pursuit of some of these conquests goes too far, well, that's when the fireworks are supposed to ignite.
The implication, at least in part, is that if Merteuil and Valmont can't have each other, they'll be perfectly happy ripping apart everyone else around them. But as McTeer and Schreiber play these two, they don't want or need each other in any way. When they deign to regard each other on deeper than a surface level (an uncommon occurrence), it's as but a necessary societal fixture, an immutable opponent, not someone to conquer and certainly not an object of desire.
The two stars have built their performances on this foundation of sexlessness. McTeer's spin on Merteuil runs along the spectrum for buttoned-up to maternal, so visibly concerned with appearances that her real self (to the extent such a thing even exists) must be kept hidden at all costs; and Schreiber's Valmont has the disconnected intellectual mien of a banker counting deposits for the day. Worse, both deliver their lines from a distinct remove, as though commenting on why someone would behave this way and reinforcing the notion that, no, two of Broadway's greatest simply wouldn't do such things.
It's unsettling, to be sure, as much because these two are vivid and resourceful performers who usually add layers of meaning without thinking about it as because they're as threatening in looks (both stand more than six feet, and McTeer, aided by costume designer Tom Scutt's voluminous gowns and her towering hairdo, looks taller still) and sound (their voices are firm, yes, but as if always quavering over a secret). And there's nothing wrong with suggesting there's a lot more at play than one-dimensional viciousness; this duo, like everyone else who's ever lived, didn't come from nowhere.
The malice is critical, however. So, for that matter, is demonstrating the gap between their personal and public lives: the sense that their private brinksmanship would never fly if the "wrong people" knew about it. (It is even key to the plot that they keep their affairs hidden.) Yet there's not a great deal of difference here whether Merteuil and Valmont are sniping when the doors are closed or open; business, of whatever variety, is conducted at the same muted, yawn-inducing level. (The Roundabout revival of eight years ago, starring Laura Linney and Ben Daniels, did capture this quality, if perhaps with a stuffiness that was reportedly not present with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in the original 1987 mounting.)
The supporting players are more energetic, if nothing else. Kampouris somewhat overdoes the "excitable youth" angle and Barsoumian is not the kind of vibrant and erotic presence you'd expect to turn the experienced Marquise's head, if only for a moment, but both are fun to watch. So, for that matter, is Mary Beth Peil as the ancient owner of the château at which much of the action unfolds, though she makes sure you know this woman is not as doddering and clueless as she may initially seem. Sørensen, though, is excellent as Tourvel, letting us see every step of her journey from resistance to submission to controller in her own right.
Important as Tourvel is, though, she's not enough to power all two hours and 45 minutes of the play. Only once the second act hits its stride, and Merteuil and Valmont's carefully constructed falsehoods begin to collapse in on them, does this production get interesting, and McTeer and Schreiber become genuinely invested.
They still have to fight the severe stodginess of Rourke's staging, and find dignity on Scutt's dilapidated-palace set, which, though coolly lighted by Mark Henderson, shoves the concept of the decaying upper crust too far in your face (one well-worn settee is used for every assignation, and the scene-change business involves not much more than carrying portraits in and out). But once they're in free-fall, they do start clawing for their positions and their lives in ways that keep you riveted on seeing the solutions they devise. Better late than never, I suppose, but Les Liaisons Dangereuses ought to be this way from start to finish: a nonstop jolt that reminds every act does have a consequence, even if you can't see it. Merteuil and Valmont should always be flirting with danger. Here, they spend most of their time not flirting with anything at all.