The original Royal Shakespeare/Broadway production of this piece with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan was electric. From the moment Le Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber here) slithered into proximity of La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer in this production) the stage crackled with wit, innuendo, and sexual anticipation. While outwardly meticulously proper, the Machiavellian power game played with others’ lives (and their own) is not just selfish and cruel, it’s rooted as firmly below the waist as it is in intellectual satisfaction.
There’s no denying both leads are excellent actors. The mercurial McTeer was far and away the best thing about this summer’s Taming of the Shrew in Central Park and Schreiber’s cable show Donovan has been well received, but the pair seems miscast, she uncomfortable and he lost in translation. Had this Marquise been coupled with as strong a force of nature as herself, things might’ve gone very differently. (London reviews with another Valmont were raves.)
Schreiber is stiff and brutish in a role that requires lascivious finesse. When calculation is apparent it’s rarely magnetic. A sword fight, however, is terrific, and its consequences well played. While McTeer has glorious moments of self-satisfaction and fury, she’s also forced to roll her eyes as her co-conspiritor peeps from behind a screen. Subtlety exhibited elsewhere is all but eliminated. We barely observe femininity or desire.
The fault lies partly in lack of balance and chemistry and partly in Director Josie Rourke’s rethinking the piece as a melodrama of mores and manners, not the vibrant life or death battle of the sexes its author intended.
We should have suspected how radically this production had changed things in the face of Tom Scutt’s beautifully dilapidated set: faded paint and peeling plaster, minimal furniture under diaphanous drop cloths, candelabras, floral arrangements, period art, and empty picture frames. We’re reminded of the wages of sin by omnipresent decay. As if this weren’t sufficient, contemporary lighting flickers out and rises up as chandeliers descend, so we’re made to distinguish then from now. Ghostly women sing oooo through set adjustments. The original production opened and remained in sensual opulence.
Conveniently a widow, La Marquise de Merteuil has the cleverness, position, resources, and backbone to organize her life and lovers as she chooses. Valmont is her amoral match. The pair, circling one another like feral, though eloquent beasts, had been, and might again be lovers. La Marquise, unaccountably thrown over before she’d been ‘finished,’ wishes revenge on an ex swain about to marry the very young Cecile Valances. (Elena Kampouris making an auspicious debut.) The man’s prize, she tells Valmont, is not Cecile’s inheritance, but her virginity. If he would kindly relieve the girl of her bud before marriage, The Marquise would be obliged.
Elena Kampouris and Liev Schreiber
Valmont at first refuses. He feels Cecile is “…bound to be curious and on her back before the first bouquet of flowers…” i.e. the task is an unworthy challenge. He also has his own current agenda to seduce the unimpeachable Madame de Tourvel without, he adds, disabusing her faith. This would be an accomplishment that could only enhance his considerable reputation. (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen is a graceful, dignified, and then wretched Madame; brava.) When La Marquise offers herself, in exchange for written proof of the deflowering, Valmont agrees. They contrive to place both “victims” at the home of Valmont’s Aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (a superb Mary Beth Peil) whom he will shortly visit. Two birds, as it were, enticed onto one extended perch.
Birgitte Hjort Sorensen and Liev Schreiber
Cecile’s gullible mother (the face-making Ora Jones), Emilie, one of Valmont’s courtesans (a credibly saucy Katrina Cunningham), and Le Chevalier Danceny – a young man besotted with Cecile who, alas, is beneath her while never actually getting beneath her (Raffi Barsoumian, who lacks naiveté ) – become mere pawns. With the help of a spying servant, a duplicitous maid, and the calculating false friendship of La Marquise, Valmont beds the teenager and baits the righteous, married Madame de Tourvel. (This is, alas, poorly depicted as a cold-blooded act, rather than exciting, if initially ambivalent discovery.)
We watch Cecile develop a taste for what’s been forbidden, potentially learning the ways of the world from a master (The Marquise), while Valmont unexpectedly gets enmeshed in a relationship with his prey (Madame de Tourval). The latter, a compelling surprise, revises all plans. La Marquise and Valmont reach a crossroads.
Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber
This is a splendidly written piece of theater, full of smart double entendre, abject decadence and ultimate risk. Unfortunately, pace that should be scintillating too often lags. Our protagonists think (and act) on their feet, forcing reaction to be as swift or at least revealing wrenching effort. Because Josie Rourke’s vision lacks the guilty pleasure of enjoying the art of consummate manipulation, the horror of its outcome also diminishes.
Costume Design (also by Tom Scutt) is handsome but restrained. We never really get a sense of the luxury and excess that act as a Petrie dish for observed games. Mark Henderson’s Lighting cooperates beautifully with actual candles to great effect. Movement Director Lorin Latarro offers stylized motion without appearing awkward. Extremely believable swordplay is attributable to Fight Director Richard Ryan.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Janet McTeer, Liev Schreiber
The Donmar Warehouse Production of
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton
From the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos
Directed by Josie Rourke
22 West 45th Street