STC’S LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES directed by Sam Strong

It’s an unconventional start to a review but before I even start deconstructing the production, I must add to a previous post on theatre etiquette. This note is for the man in Row B, sitting in front of me. Please use a deodorant. Regularly. Maybe even change your shirt before you go out at night. Your body odour, the worst I’ve encountered for a while and I have been trapped in a room with sweaty teenage boys that come up roses next to your olfactory assault, made me gag on my own scarf. Were you a plant from bitter enemies to halt my postings? Well played stinky man, but no cigar (and had I lit it in your presence the les dangereuses gases permeating from your undergarments would have sent us all up in flames).
So kudos to ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ for still managing to engage me when such sensory adverse conditions were in play. This production has a number of things about it I really like. Firstly, Hampton’s script is a deft adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ novel. I love that it’s a generally well written vehicle for strong middle-aged characters and actors. I love that there are more roles for women than men. I love that it explores the social politics and inequalities of women in a clever, interesting way and contextualises a world where the appearance of restraint is paramount but that this world is a façade for deceit and delves into the tactics of how to get exactly what you want without arousing suspicion. And I use the word ‘tactics’ especially here as this dissection is going to focus on that technique and concept.
It is an entertaining play brought to life with skill and sophistication. It’s not perfect but I was never not engaged. I’m not going to give you paragraphs of plot (you know my thoughts here- google the story if you need to). A three hour play does not need an episodic breakdown. Trust me when I say it’s interesting and you’ll enjoy it.
So let’s accept the following criticism in the spirit of understanding that it did not affect my enjoyment but it’s why the play may have been engaging but not powerful.
Let’s start with the biggie- the lack of chemistry between Hugo Weaving’s Le Vicomte de Valmont and Justine Clarke’s La Presidente de Tourvel. The play hinges on convincing us of Valmont’s pressing desire to conquer and seduce the chaste Tourvel, to get her to succumb against her will and in the process, as much as he tries to deny and conquer his own feelings, he deeply falls for her. If we don’t believe the connection and turmoil between them, it is a skilled but superficial sell, especially when it unfolds. It is this event that changes everything in the play- the Vicomte’s relationship with Pamela Rabe’s La Marquise de Merteul, his actions and motivations towards others and ultimately his own fate that then unravels the fates of others. Although Weaving and Clarke are undisputedly fine actors there just wasn’t anything between them that convinced me of his passion or her capitulation and therefore the ending didn’t pack the punch it needed. Perhaps they were affected by the odour attack wave from Row B?
I’m a fan of Weaving. He does know how to command a stage and his name on the show list will always sell tickets. But I felt his tactics for much of the play lacked subtlety. He’s got swagger but this character needs to be able to charm and disarm and if you come in to the room with your intentions as broad as daylight, even the murky haze effect used on stage won’t hide your objectives from the other characters. It does come as a surprise that they could have all been so profoundly stupid or naïve to fall for his tricks. One of the flaws of the play is that the younger characters are often just fodder or targets for the older characters so if there isn’t more manipulation and subtlety in tactics, it makes the younger characters feel whiney and one-dimensional or purely under-written. I thought the actors gave it a brave shot but had director Sam Strong encouraged more tactics in manipulating others to reach their intentions, there may have been more for the younger cast to bite in to.
Now let’s talk about Rabe and that wig. Was it a deliberate choice to dress her as Robyn Nevin? If you are playing a conniving, intelligent, complex villainess, was the director making a statement here? Rabe was completely transformed but I couldn’t help but think there was another motive floating around here… I’ll leave that with you.
Rabe gave a solid, strong, intimidating performance. There may be a few questions, like Weaving, where I wonder if a more nuanced list of tactics could have been employed. It is hard to imagine why she never aroused suspicion from those around her- she was a formidable mercenary. And if this is what we predominantly see, the declaration of ‘war’ is not a tilt, it’s a natural progression. If it is a society resting on the façade of restraint and integrity, where was the façade? I think she put all her cards on the table, like the metaphor of the opening scene, from the start.
There were great moments of tension amongst it all, although sometimes played out in slow motion, like the duel between Valmont and James Mackay’s Le Chavailier Danceny. The ending also felt like a variation of Hamlet, with bodies strewn across the stage. None of this was detrimental but felt slightly contrived. Perhaps we would have been moved more had that chemistry and tactical variety been employed.
I think director Sam Strong has crafted a play that its audience will feel they got value for money but my only question of his work was whether he was intimidated by the calibre of his cast so he didn’t rein in choices or whether he is still yet to master the art of subtlety. After seeing ‘The Boys’ and this show, he certainly knows how to bring a story to life and engage an audience and interpret material with integrity and skill but I question whether he has fully developed a range of tactics and beats to explore and express character choices. Sometimes less is more.
Finally let’s look at design. I can’t help looking at this beautifully constructed French provincial set by Dale Ferguson and wonder if he’s available for home renovations. It’s well-utilised, practical and allows characters to twist and hide amongst the choices of entrances and exits. It captures the world, even in the chamber for live piano refrains from composer Alan John.
There was also flair in Mel Page’s costume designs- an elegance of class, character and personality with a contemporary flavour. It did sometimes feel like the worlds were anachronistic but I think this is an inherent note of Hampton’s writing more than directorial choices. It works for the most part without too much confusion.
If you can get a ticket to ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, I’d recommend a viewing. But bring your own smelling salts or a scented hanky in case the man in Row B is back for an encore.

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2 comments

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Anonymous May 20, 2012 at 11:03 am

Spot on Jane. I enjoyed it but I never believed Valmont truely loved Madame de Tourvel – it seemed 'a game' of his all the way through.

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Anonymous May 23, 2012 at 7:03 am

I thought the chemistry that was most lacking was that between Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving. They crossed swords and drew a little blood but the climax of the play for me wasn't the Valmont/Tourvel story , it was the Valmont/Merteul one, a love story that was warped and twisted but deep and passionate and that didn't quite work. I thought Rabe was good but her comic timing wasn't great and some of her best lines were thrown away. Justine Clark was very good indeed. If there was to be sexual chemistry it had to come from Weaving for much of the time and the play made it so clear that he was cold-heartedly playing a game that you can't blame him for doing it that way. Sam Strong's a real talent.

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