You can almost hear the rattle of tumbrils and the summary drop of the guillotine blade as you watch this production. Christopher Hampton's acclaimed stage adaptation of the scandalously sophisticated epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos' – published seven years before the start of the French Revolution – made stars of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan when it was premiered by the RSC in 1985. In general, I dislike the “X cannot efface the memory of Y” school of theatre criticism but it would be idle to pretend that the acting here is on that stratospheric level of elegantly deadly cynicism and poised, manipulative skulduggery.
Director Josie Rourke has given the proceedings the justifiably disconcerting look of an ancien regime either on the way out or on the way in again for a spooky out-of-time replay of their decadent games. In Tom Scutt's excellent design, chandeliers dangle and change height over a crumbling chateau-like space where the sparse objects – harpsichord, chaise longue, a stack of oil-painted canvases – feel in readiness for the removal men. It reminded me, intentionally, I think, a little of the last act of The Cherry Orchard.
The production, in my opinion, finds it harder to achieve an appropriate tone for the behaviour of the denizens of this highly cultured snake pit. Janet McTeer and Dominic West portray the Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, former lovers who now – in a sort of continuation of sex by other means – work both in league with each other and competitively in the perverted project of corrupting the innocent and the virtuous for selfish kicks and fresh sexual conquests. But Dominic West who, as The Wire fans and those who saw him playing Iago to Clarke Peters' Othello in Sheffield will not need reminding, is an excellent actor, seems to me miscast and not well directed here. Valmont is, basically, a seductive sociopath and erotomane for whom strategy is a type of foreplay. You have to believe that there's a hotline between unceasingly active brain and insatiable genitals. In my view, West could be Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest who has strayed into an 18th century costume party. Plummily English, it's as if he'd be happier devouring a dish of muffins than the married, pious Mme Tourvel. Elaine Cassidy superbly communicates a state of growingly feverish chastity that succumbs only when she's duped into thinking that it is a kind of religious mission to save Valmont from despair.
Drop-dead striking in her silken dove-grey gowns, McTeer's fine Merteuil insinuates and machinates in a sinisterly breathy, mock-soothing manner, her eyes a-glare with scheming circumspection and latent with injury. Determined to remain top dog over Valmont, she loses in her over-retaliation when he commits that most cardinal of solecisms and falls despite himself in love with Tourvel. The ending of the production is beautifully judged in its desolation, with McTeer and her female associates holding their hands of cards close to their chest in a game fundamentally loaded against them and in a landscape where only a corpse has found peace.
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