What: Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Where: Phoenix Theatre
When: To Nov. 26
Rating: four (out of five)
Much of the dramatic power of Les Liaisons Dangereuses lies smouldering within in its central conceit. In Christopher Hampton’s play, the love between the two lead characters has ossified into a horrible (and even sociopathic) form of gamesmanship.
This, suggests the playwright, is symptomatic of the decadence of a French aristocracy in which an over abundance of wealth and leisure has become the devil’s plaything.
Many of us know the play through the 1988 movie, Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich. The film was based on Hampton’s 1985 drama, which is an adaptation of the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the story of two denizens of the upper-crust, Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil. They’ve become so jaded, they use seduction to gratify their need to control and humiliate others. This perverse desire is so exaggerated, the entire play becomes a bizarre game of chicken, with each character preferring to self-immolate rather than “lose” to the other.
Ostensibly for the amusement of all, Merteuil encourages (or rather, orders) Valmont to undertake a series of seductions. First there’s Cecil, a twitty and naive girl whom Valmont dispatches almost without breaking a sweat. His big coup, however, is Tourvel, a young woman who operates with an iron moral compass. Part of the fun is watching Valmont, the virtuoso libertine, doing verbal somersaults in order to make this conquest.
This visually splendid University of Victoria theatre department production is a bona fide coup for the creative team. Director Fran Gebhard realizes the key to making Les Liaisons Dangereuses work is emphasizing the decorous glitter of the upper crust, in order to provide a stark contrast with the morally-bankrupt central characters. She’s put tremendous emphasis on the physical — all the actors move with utmost decorum, holding their arms just so, flipping the tails of jackets with the greatest of elegance. Even the footmen moving furniture between scenes conduct themselves with military precision.
The play’s look is exquisitely pale and beautiful, making it seem as if the action takes place within the clouds (the director’s notes say the show’s backdrop drapery was to suggest the “soiled sheets of the aristocrats’ beds”). Graham McMonagle’s 18th-century costumes are detailed and lovely. Barbara Clerihue’s subtly lit set is simple and sophisticated, with a blanched wood stage and a single grand chandelier.
It’s a lengthy play — two hours and 40 minutes with intermission. The latter half of 90-minute first act did drag — it’s not easy to sustain airy, epigrammatic dialogue for such a chunk of time. That said, those in the key roles did well on Friday night. This is impressive for a student cast, especially given the complexity of these characters who operate within such a limited and artificial milieu.
Aidan Correia was able to convey Valmont’s affected grace and the emotions fermenting underneath, including the genuine love he develops for Tourvel. This switch of affections is devastating to Merteuil, played in a pleasing contained manner by Adriana Marchand ( although disappointingly, her reaction to Valmont’s death was oddly underwhelming).
Emma Grabinsky captured Cecil’s unaffected lustiness, while Pascal Lamothe-Kipnes did a clever job of making Tourvel — a two-dimensional role — into a fully fleshed out character. And the promising Julien Bruce found welcome comic moments as Le Chevalier Danceny.
A key to fathoming Les Liaisons Dangereuses is understanding its sexual politics. We have more sympathy for Merteuil’s cruelty if we realize the subservient position society has assigned women. Speaking on love and sex, she says: “Men enjoy the happiness they feel; we [women] can only enjoy the happiness we give.”