What is “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”? A delicious slice of scandalous eroticism — pure sauce and spleen — or something more intricate? Josie Rourke leans towards the former, encouraging Janet McTeer and Dominic West into pantomime villainy as the Marquis de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. In the intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation becomes sultry and sensuous, but lacks substance and a sense of reality. It’s like a one-night stand: gratifying enough, but more or less meaningless.
First staged 30 years ago by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hampton’s stage version seems ingenious largely because it’s such an improbable thing. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ original book is arguably the ultimate epistolary novel. Its plot unfolds through a criss-cross of letters, and it thrives by its form, showing us deceits spun and swallowed. Hampton manages to retain the secrecy and disclosure, while reconstructing the action to reveal an elegant, classical symmetry beneath the surface. Its several relationships reflect one another to reveal a specification of sexual politics and practices.
The story centers on Valmont and the Marquis de Merteuil, a malicious pair who use sex to control and manipulate others. Callously, they screw people over — usually over chaise longues and writing desks. Valmont is charged to seduce a virginal 15-year-old, Cecile (Morfydd Clark), who’s due to marry one of the Marquis’s ex-lovers, while also going after the chaste Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) simply by way of a challenge. Should he succeed, with written proof, the Marquis offers herself as a reward.
The pleasure comes from the entrapments and entanglements. Valmont slithers snake-like into Cecile’s bed, despite her protestations, then, cannily, patiently, spins de Tourvel into a tizzy. However, sometimes lust shortcircuits love, and sometimes vice versa. Valmont falls for de Tourvel despite himself, leaving the Marquis jealous and vengeful. She exacts her revenge with the only weapon she knows.
To be more than a literary Playboy serial, however, “Les Liaisons” needs grounding in reality. It gets very little here. West and McTeer indulge themselves, rolling words around in their mouths and running their hands over surfaces like cartoon villains. McTeer drops her voice to a deep soft-porn purr, savoring the word “cruelty” like a champagne truffle. West speaks every line as if it ended with a winkface emoji, pausing meaningfully at the slightest innuendo.
By making Valmont and the Marquis so, so, so scandalous, Rourke blows any chance of unpicking them psychologically or socially. We get no motives, no explanation, no subtext and no sense of better judgement. Just two wrong’uns; bad apples with high libidos. For all their relish — which is, admittedly, relishable, just as a cackling witch or a Bond villain can be — West and McTeer offer no insight. They’re beautiful people beautifully dressed, nothing more complex than that. Of course they excel in seduction. Without interrogation, this is state-subsidized softcore.
Designer Tom Scutt tries to instill a few ideas. His dilapidated set, chipped marble and peeling gold plate, suggests a social class on the brink of collapse. A series of oil paintings, mostly society portraits, ask questions about the art of sex and the sexiness of art. But Rourke’s production is content to let its frame do the work and serve up a romp; one made all the sexier by Mark Henderson’s candlelight.
On those terms, it just about succeeds. West, still not in control of his lines, is a tad bland, but McTeer is statuesque and commanding, her cheekbones like cut-glass and her gloved fingers featherlight. She’s both coquettish and alert, with the permanent look of someone who’s just snorted something. Clark is sweet, forever swooning as the young Cecile, while Cassidy alone finds real character development, unclenching as she falls in love, somehow younger and freer.