In a cavernous rehearsal studio in London's East End, the actors Jared Harris and Polly Walker are playing an elaborate game of sexual manners. He moves toward her; her eyes invite him to come closer; he lingeringly kisses her hand; she turns away. They are closely watched by a movement director, Jane Gibson, who intervenes to adjust the merest tilt of a chin or turn of a shoulder, and by the director Tim Fywell. Also on hand is Christopher Hampton, one of Britain's most significant living playwrights, whose best-known work, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is being rehearsed.
Soon afterward, the company breaks for lunch. In the canteen, Fywell and Hampton settle down to plates of food that, despite a marked resemblance to school dinners, Fywell assures me is better than it looks. Tucking into lasagne, Fywell is avuncular, energetic and quick to laugh. Hampton speaks more softly and formally, his words chosen with precision as he deftly prises meat from a roast chicken leg.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first presented by the RSC in 1985. Directed by Howard Davies and starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, this tale of love, lust and treachery was a huge surprise hit, transferring to the West End and spawning an Oscar-winning film, directed by Stephen Frears with a screenplay by Hampton, and starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. The new production will be the play's first West End revival. Fywell, who despite directing credits at the Royal Court and Hampstead Theatres, is better known for his work in film and television (credits include I Capture the Castle, Cambridge Spies and Cracker) is setting about the challenge with a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration.
"I was quite nervous at first, because I'd seen the original production, which I thought was fantastic, and I'd seen the movie, which I really liked. And I thought, 'Oh God, how can you improve on that?' I don't think you can. This is the first play I've directed in 10 years, but I felt ready to work on one again. So I read it, which I'd never actually done before, and I thought, what a wonderful script. Christopher and I met," he chuckles, "and he was obviously checking me out. And I picked his brains about the piece, and we seemed to get on."
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Set amid the aristocratic decadence of pre-Revolutionary Paris, it centres on the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont - two brilliant, beautiful, cruel ex-lovers who use seduction to manipulate and destroy those around them for their own amusement. But the sexual power play turns deadly serious when Merteuil realises that Valmont is falling in love with one of his conquests, and sets her sights on vengeance. In 1985, the play seemed the perfect emblem of Thatcherite Britain, with the ruthless win-or-die mentality of its characters and its portrayal of the callous, self-obsessed vanity and heedless cruelty of the rich. Is there a chance that, in 2003, Les Liaisons Dangereuses will show its age?
"Actually, it was purely by chance that the play wasn't written in the Seventies. That's when it was proffered," says Hampton. "I asked the National Theatre if they were interested and they said they weren't."
"I bet they're ruing the day!" crows Fywell with undisguised delight.
"So I therefore waited another eight years before I did it," Hampton continues, "and it just happened to catch that particular 1980s mood."
Interestingly, what Hampton wrote instead was Treats, a savage three-hander about a woman and two men caught in a destructive sexual triangle. "Both plays deal with power, and are about people who are more interested in sex as power than for its own sake. Which seems to me," he adds drily, "rather unsympathetic." Does he think such repugnant behaviour is prevalent? "Oh, yes, it's never absent from life," he says. "Yes," rejoins Fywell, "it's a perennial theme. That's why Les Liaisons Dangereuses will never go out of date."
"It seems to me," remarks Hampton, chewing thoughtfully, "watching it after all this time, that it's about something else now. It doesn't seem to me about high Thatcherism. It seems to be more about all the prurient interest everybody has in everybody else's sex life."
"Hello! magazine, OK!" Fywell chimes, and Hampton nods. The pair agree, too, with my suggestion that the play's preoccupation with the superficial - Merteuil wisely remarks at one point that "vanity and happiness are incompatible" - seems particularly pertinent in our cosmetic-surgery-addicted days. And anybody who has ever worn a pair of high heels will recognise the way the play's 18th-century costumes sacrifice comfort to fashion - corseted gowns narrow the waist and emphasise the breasts, while the men's tight breeches draw the eye to the crotch.
To wear those provocative outfits, Fywell says he wanted "a sexy cast". He certainly got one - and the young, attractive company boasts a roster of famous names and familiar faces. Starring alongside Jared Harris (son of Richard), who plays Valmont, and Polly Walker (Patriot Games, Emma), as Mertueil, are Emilia Fox and Sarah Woodward (both daughters of acclaimed actor fathers called Edward), Jeremy Edwards (best known for Hollyoaks and Holby City) and Laurence Penry-Jones (Doctors, The Forsyte Saga).
"It's an interesting cast," Hampton says. "People have been talking about reviving this play in London for a few years now, and the instinctive thing is to say, 'Let's do it with huge stars; let's do one of those resting-Hollywood-actor jobs. I think... well, let's say I think it was a much better idea to do it this way. I also very much wanted to move away from the original production," Fywell adds. "When we first started talking about the project various names were mooted, and I kept thinking, 'Hmm, he's the new Alan Rickman, she's a bit like Lindsay Duncan.' I think what I'm getting with this cast is something a little more modern, a little more edgy."
It's not surprising that Fywell is keen to bring a fresh perspective to the piece - the success of the play's RSC debut and of Frears' film still casts a long shadow. But that success was hard won. After the rejection of Hampton's initial idea by the National Theatre, the playwright took advantage of an open commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Eighties to propose a theatrical version of Laclos's novel once again. Hampton says the company's response was "less than ecstatic", and the play was scheduled for just 23 performances at the Other Place, the RSC's smallest Stratford performance space (Fywell describes it as "a shed"). The making of the 1988 film version Dangerous Liaisons also proved problematic, because Milos Forman decided to make a rival movie based on the same source material - Valmont, with Colin Firth in the title role. Forman even attempted to lure Michelle Pfeiffer away from the Frears film to star in his own. In the event, Dangerous Liaisons won the race to premiere, and Valmont's subsequent release was little regarded. And Les Liaisons Dangereuses remains Hampton's best-known play. But is it among his favourites?
"It's been so good to me, I would be churlish not to say so," he smiles. Fywell quickly interjects to counter this modest pragmatism, "But I've noticed how much you've got invested in it emotionally."
"Yes," Hampton admits, "I know, I love this play. A curious thing happened back in 1985. I went to a Tuesday matinée in Stratford in November, and it was snowing. And there were dozens of people standing outside the theatre, in the snow, waiting to get in. And I thought, my goodness - something is happening here. And then it was a struggle to get the play on in the West End. The RSC had just done a production of La Dame aux Camellias that had lost money, so they didn't want to do it. So one of the reasons I'm so fond of this play is that, despite all adversities, it's come through. I mean, it ran in London for five and half years...." He is interrupted by a load groan from Fywell, who complains: "That's a lot to live up to!"
'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' opens tomorrow at the Playhouse Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6631)Reuse content