The set of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is gorgeous, peeling paint walls and grandiose period furniture half-draped with dust sheets, a sense of opulent decay almost akin to something from Great Expectations, replete with the hypnotising flicker of real candles (something which caused a great deal of initial excitement amongst the audience). This sense of surrealist glamour extends into the opening of the play, and the scene changes, as ensemble cast members whirl across the stage to the strain of operatic arias. The body of the play, however, is far more grounded in the cut-throat world of sexual politics than this introduction suggests, and it is only when it begins to unravel towards its dizzyingly tragically end in the second half that Josie Rourke’s vision regains its full potency.
Based on Laclos’s epistolary novel, Hampton’s script weaves in the original letters with sensual aplomb, a sly nod to Clarissa, one of the most famous epistolary novels of the period, providing a brief moment of foreshadowing in the midst of the sharp-witted comedy that dominates the first half. Cécile (the charming Morfydd Clark) begins as a perfect foil to the wonderfully wicked Marquisse de Mertuil (Janet McTeer), who gives Hampton’s whip-smart one-liners the delivery they deserve. The underlying sexual (and, despite their fervent denials, romantic) tension between Mertuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West) is emphasised greatly within this production, the rest of their circle serving as a battleground for their machinations. Dominic West switches roles as smoothly as Valmont himself, although his frequent stumbled lines served to break this illusion at several points in the play. West is a brilliant actor who, unfortunately, does not quite find his swing as the Vimcomte until the second half, where the unravelling of his long-held belief in his imperviousness is played with a real sense of impending doom.
Les Liasions Dangereuses is not a straightforward comedy – the repercussions are far too serious for that – but it is a hugely funny play, and Theo Barklem-Bigg’s gleefully promiscuous footman is a real comic highlight. The comedy of the production takes precedence in the first half, the coldly calculating plots of Valmont and Mertuil only allowed to be horrifying for a moment, until they are reclaimed by Hampton’s devilish wit. Our own sense of voyeuristic delight in watching events unfold allows us to forget, momentarily, the hearts and lives at stake in the game that Mertuil is playing. It is only as the tragic end unwinds that the damage that has been done fully sinks in. It is in this second half that Elaine Cassidy, as the maltreated Madame de Tourvel, comes into her own. Her grief is enormously powerful, and the unflinching nature of the violence enacted upon her means there are few laughs to follow – something for which Rourke must be commended. It is tempting to underplay the darkness of Les Liaisons, but Hampton’s script makes it very clear just how dark it is. Their world is one of dangerous decadence; a world that can only destroy itself.