Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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 Booth Theater 22 West 45th Street
What with Hilary Clinton hopefully on her way to The White House and a resurgence of women’s groups focused on everything from reproductive rights to career opportunities, The Public Theater apparently thinks mounting an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew is timely quid pro quo. (All productions in Shakespeare’s time were acted exclusively by men.) Even the show’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, hails from the distaff side.
Lloyd, alas, is the biggest part of the problem here. Seemingly in an effort to emulate Alex Timber’s immensely more successful free-for-all musical take on Love’s Labour’s Lost, we have a concept gone off the rails with no cohesive point of view. Irreverence can be fun, but this…!?
Donna Lynn Champlin, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Crush Jumbo
In brief, Petruchio (Janet McTeer) arrives from Verona “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” When told the likeliest candidate is a shrew named Katherina/Kate (Cush Jumbo), he resolves to acquire the lady by denying her faults. Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) has a slew of suitors. Predominant among these are locals Gemio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Stacey Sargeant), and the newly arrived Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore).
The girls’ father, Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), will not allow Bianca’s marriage before Kate is suitably paired off. He will, however, permit tutors access to his daughters. Lucentio switches places with his servant Tranio (Adrienne C. Moore) and is presented to papa as a teacher of literature. In a really funny scene, he declares his identity and love between passages of Gone With the Wind. Bianca responds “I know you not. I trust you not. (reading) I’ll never be hungry again!” She’s conveniently if irrationally dressed like Scarlett O’Hara.
Not to be outdone, Hortensio masquerades as a music instructor. Lucentio wins. Tranio secures her hand for his master (still disguised as him) by promising a large dowry. After a mix-up involving Lucentio’s faux and actual father, servant and master switch back.
Janet McTeer and Crush Jumbo
Drunk (there’s a bottle in his paper bag) and under dressed in this version, Petruchio weds Kate and drags her off in his hysterical, full sized RV, painted with pin-ups. (Kudos to Mark Thompson.) He deprives his bride of food and sleep at a trailer camp – killing her with ersatz kindness – until starving and exhausted, she gives in to his every whim. Upon returning home for Bianca’s wedding, he bets on and proves the shrew’s change. Kate’s iconic speech about wifely duties/subservience is a surprise to everyone.
A pithy role long relished by formidable actresses, Kate must be an equal to Petruchio for the play to work. She must match him in quickness of wit, intelligence, and stubborn pride – in other words, a prize. The best performances show slow recognition that this strong, attractive man is, in fact, worth having; that it’s her decision to submit, that rather than diminish Kate, it will eventually give her leverage. Petruchio meanwhile grows to admire what he now ostensibly owns and will, it’s implied, relinquish his outrageous test demands. The “doormat” speech is delivered with an arched eyebrow by a woman who has found her water level .
Crush Jumbo, Janet McTeer
Beginning and ending with a beauty pageant, the British Lloyd acknowledges that women were judged by beauty and financial gain. That she paints both female protagonists as unworthy of further examination is as anti-feminist as it gets.
In this production, the heroine is a tantrum-throwing, childish brat (andnot believable as that, either). As conceived one presumes by Lloyd and played by an ill-suited Cush Jumbo, her only merit is a dowry. The relationship is meaningless. Kate is a Stepford Wife. Lest we leave with that impression, she has an aria da capo fit of screaming rebellion at the end and is dispensed in a manner that makes no sense. What ?!
Bianca’s air-headed, blonde beauty queen persona is embodied rather well by Gayle Rankin with comedic flair, despite directed shouting. It would work better had she a significant Kate to play her opposite.
Latanya Richardson Jackson, Janet McTeer
Also good are Stacey Sargeant as Hortensio (replete with accordion and some well finessed timing) and Adrienne C. Moore as a genial Tranio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Baptista lacks paternal and class authority.
A call-out should be made to Judy Gold (Gremio) who rescued a stall due to the malfunctioning RV, with ad-libbed comedy, some of which was lighthearted vaudeville, some of which was unnecessarily vulgar.
The best reason to sit through this mishmash is far and away Janet McTeer (Petruchio). This mercurial actress, soon to appear on Broadway in Les Liasons Dangereuses, imbues her swaggering, masculine role with so much visual testosterone, reality feels suspended. She moves, gestures, smokes, drinks and deeply laughs as would the cocky rogue. Petruchio manhandles Kate with confident sovereignty and no regard for the weakness of her sex. Commands are spit, aftermath watchful. McTeer, calculates, manipulates, revels, and gloats in perfect tenor. A masterful turn.
Rose Gilmore, Gayle Rankin
Mark Thompson’s evocative tent and wagon Set seems irrelevant to a piece with not a moment of circus parody or performance. His 1950’s Costumes fair better with the help of Leah J. Loukas’s unflattering (the style then) Hair and Wig Design. The production also, however, utilizes western gear, sometimes adding cowboy hats to suits from another geography. Petruchio resembles a Texas Hell’s Angel. Kate looks like a character from Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park). Nor are the rich dressed any differently than their servants. At least give us that disparity within a chosen genre.
Live music between scenes consists of abrasive, electronic, bass sound with a tad of rhythm and next to no melody. (Sam Davis) Excerpted disco tunes and middle-of-the-road pop are often humorously inserted but rarely from the 1950s and never country/western. Disconnect is constant. (A company dance finale -Broadway meets disco – is sheer copycat.)
The company is hit or miss with language that should be crisp and intelligible whatever its proffered context. While I have no problem when two (black) servants speak with ghetto street inflection, general enunciation lacks the precision necessary to make a conversational approach accessible and entertaining. Most of these actresses seem untrained in Shakespeare. The further afield a production is taken, the more important its dialogue.
As always, the outdoor theater itself is a unique experience. Besides helicopters who frustratingly never seem rerouted on performance nights, we’re visited by an enormous raccoon and four perfectly arrayed geese. The weather is glorious.
Jojo Moyes’ bestselling novel comes to the big screen starring the adorable Emilia Clarke (sans her dragons) and the very appealing Sam Claflin (from The Hunger Games). Moyes also wrote the screenplay, so the film sticks closely to the book, something that will undoubtedly please her fans.
Moyes’ story is a twist on the familiar theme of star-crossed lovers. When Louisa Clark (Clarke) loses her waitress job, she finds employment as a caregiver and companion to Will Traynor (Claflin) a quadriplegic whose wealthy family lives in a castle that for centuries has dominated the landscape in a picturesque British town. Will, despondent about his physical condition, wants to end his life at Dignitas, an assisted suicide organization based in Switzerland. While Will’s father (Charles Dance) understands his son’s decision, Will’s mother, Camilla (Janet McTeer) hopes to change his mind. A skilled nurse, Nathan (Stephen Peacocke), takes care of Will’s bodily needs, but Camilla hires Lou hoping the quirky young woman can lift Will’s spirits and convince him to keep living.
Charles Dance and Janet McTeer
Lou and Will are polar opposites. Lou’s father, Bernard (Brendan Coyle, Bates from Downton Abbey), has lost his job and Lou, putting her own future on hold, is supporting the family. She’s never been outside her small town, never attended a concert, and never watched a foreign film with subtitles. Her boyfriend, Patrick (Matthew Lewis) is a self-absorbed exercise fanatic. (For Lou’s birthday, he gives her a necklace that says “Patrick.”) Before his accident, Will was a star at his firm and dazzled his friends with his athletic ability. “I loved my life,” he tells Lou. The morning of his accident, he gave in to his girlfriend’s urging not to ride his motorcycle in the rain and, as fate would have it, was struck by another motorcycle.
Lou and Will get off to a bad start. He resents her presence, his behavior condescending, even hostile. Lou, however, is willing to put up with a lot to keep the well-paying job. She’s also a Pollyanna, able to see something positive in even Will’s situation. Her appearance alone serves to pick up Will’s spirits. Lou favors fuzzy pastel sweaters, brightly patterned skirts, and whimsical shoes. Predictably, Will’s icy attitude begins to thaw. He introduces Lou to foreign films and agrees to attend a Mozart concert. When he’s invited to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, he asks Lou to go with him. In Lou’s presence, he seems less self-conscious about his disability, even taking a turn on the dance floor in his wheelchair with Lou on his lap.
Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin
While Will seems happier, he hasn’t changed his mind about ending his life and the 60 days he promised his parents to wait is nearly at an end. Lou, however, refuses to give up, pressing Will to go on a dream vacation. Accompanied by Nathan, the three fly on a private jet to a tropical island. While the word “love” is never spoken, it’s obvious the two have indeed fallen for each other. On a moonlit beach, they share a kiss. But that intimate moment proves frustrating for Will, bringing home that he would never be able to have the type of relationship with Lou that he truly wants and she deserves. (Get those tissues ready.)
Clarke and Claflin have wonderful chemistry. Director Thea Sharrock allows the pair’s relationship to unfold slowly so we are able to watch these two talented actors test each other and then finally come together. Clarke’s face is particularly expressive and she’s wonderful to watch. Fans of Game of Thrones will enjoy seeing her in an entirely different role. Claflin has a tough job, conveying an array of emotions while remaining immobile. The scenes where Will’s condition takes a turn for the worse are particularly tense, underlining how even with the best of care a quadriplegic’s health is sometimes precarious.
Sam Claflin and Stephen Peacocke
Moyes’ book received uniformly positive reviews when it was first published in 2012 and went on to become an international bestseller. Yet even before the film’s opening, disability advocates have protested what they feel are problematic messages. Will’s charge to Lou to “live fully”, seems to imply, the groups say, that only able-bodied people can do so and that euthanasia becomes a likely choice. (Other films besides Me After You – Million Dollar Baby and Whose Life Is It Anyway? – have shown individuals with paralyzing injuries fighting for the right to die.) Moyes and the film’s stars have emphasized that Me Before You is simply one story (and a fictional one at that) about one man’s decision. And there has been praise for the book, specifically from The Christopher Reeve Foundation. (See Robin Weaver’s interview with Jojo Moyes.)
With robust sales for the book, the film is expected to do well at the box office. In a summer filled with super heroes and sequels, Me Before You provides an alternative for moviegoers. If this movie also sparks a discussion about how the disabled are portrayed in all forms of media, that would be a very positive outcome.