Review: Janet McTeer and Dominic West, the Machiavellian seductors in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse
The many candles flickering in the chandeliers above the Donmar stage don't hide the faded grandeur of the set. The aristocracy in 18th century France, beautifully and opulently turned out and yet the walls of the salon in which they congregate are peeling and the art is packed away. Given the amoral nature of the protagonists, the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), it feels like a physical embodiment of moral decline.
Christopher Hampton's play is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel written in the years before the French Revolution and is set in the world of ex-lovers Merteuil and Valmont who use seduction as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others. They do it for revenge, they do it to challenge and amuse each other. They have no remorse.
Merteuil wants Vicomte to seduce young virgin Cecile (Morfydd Clark) in order to spoil her for her future husband who is an ex-lover of Merteuil's on whom she wants to take revenge. Vicomte thinks the task to easy for his skills and instead sets his sights on married Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) who is staying with his aunt and has a peerlessly virtuous reputation. Merteuil request written proof of his success with de Tourvel and in return she agrees to sleep with him again. When he realises that de Tourvel has been warned about his own, less than virtuous, reputation by Cecile's mother it is game on.
Both McTeer and West are like mantis, captivating and seducing their prey before going in for the kill. In fact you can't help but admire their charm-wrapped guile and gall. Hampton's script is laced with amusing irony, indeed we laugh at what they get away with. The central irony has its own teeth, Merteuil and Vicomte are playing games with people's lives, destructively so. And, their own feelings and lives are not immune.
There is one particular scene of 'seduction' which is an uncomfortable watch, almost disturbingly so. While you enjoy the two aristocrats' cleverness it is a reminder of just how nasty they are. From then the fun of seeing them succeed turns to wanting to see them get what is due.
Josie Rourke's production carefully balances the lighter and darker aspects of the play, McTeer and West are beautiful and charming villains, mesmerising and repulsive. Amid the opulent clothes, the candle light and the atmospheric operatic interludes as the scenes change, the decaying set lurks. The current season at the Donmar is certainly going out on a high.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is 2 hours and 45 minutes long including an interval and runs until February 13, 2016.
Tripping over direct connections for this one. Dominic West was in The Hour with Mr W and Edward Holcroft played his lover in London Spy.