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A CurtainUp London London Review
Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Men enjoy the happiness they feel. We can only enjoy the happiness we give.
--- Madame de Rosemonde
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Jared Harris as Valmont, Polly Walker as La Marquise and Emilia Fox as Madame de Tourvel
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Many people in London still talk about the magnificent RSC 1986 production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses which brought together the acting talents of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. Now Christopher Hampton's play based on the eighteenth century French novel of Choderlos de Laclos about the corrupt and depraved aspects of French aristocratic society before the revolution is revived at the Playhouse. Directed by Tim Fywell whose delightful film of the Dodie Smith novel I Capture the Castle pleased critics earlier this year, Les Liaisons Dangereuses stars the late Richard Harris' son, Jared. Harris plays Le Vicomte de Valmont, the part taken by the amazing John Malkovitch in the film with Glenn Close as his partner in intrigue, the Marquise de Merteuil, here acted by Polly Walker.

This is a pretty production, simply set with a multipurpose chaise-longue which converts to a bed as and when necessary and with mob capped servants to carry out the numerous scene changes on the Playhouse's circular revolving set. Cut glass chandeliers rise and fall (as do the heaving bosoms) to create differing rooms as silk skirts and embroidered coats create plush period atmosphere.

If only the performances were as sparkling as the chandeliers then we would have had a luminescent night in the theatre. Emilia Fox alone of the principals is excellent as the virtuous woman, La Presidente de Tourvel, the ultimate object of seduction, the task Valmont sets himself alongside the seduction of a virgin bride set by his handler, La Marquise. Jared Harris is very disappointing in the role. Rosy faced and red haired, he physically doesn't fit the bill as the great seducer. Maybe he would have been helped by a powdered wig and white face makeup with the odd patch? His voice has an almost lisp-like quality to it and the sotto voce way he speaks Hampton's dry witty lines sounds merely querulous. I feel that although Valmont behaves in the worst possible way he has to be smooth and attractive, sexy and sophisticated. Polly Walker too, although she is very pretty, did not really convey the base, vengeful maliciousness of the Marquise's empty existence.

The second half moves at a better pace than the first and the duel scene is choreographed to perfection. Harris is more at home when he is called upon to be plain nasty than when he is beguiling or confused by the love he really feels for La Tourvel. Olivia Llewellyn is enthusiastic as Cecile, the virgin Valmont seduces. How interesting that blondes in 18th century France had a reputation for chastity. Plus ça change. . . Ce n'est pas la même chose! Emilie (Jayne Ashbourne) the prostitute gives us an earthy scene as Valmont composes a letter leaning on her attractive rump.

If Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an accurate picture of the depravity of French aristocratic society before the revolution, then I have more than a little sympathy with les sans culottes. Ironic name that in this context. The closing scene gave us a blinding flash of light and the unmistakable sound of a falling blade on a privileged neck, a reminder of what is to come. Maybe it would have been better to guillotine this production of Christopher Hampton's play. I'm going to get out the movie to expunge the memory.

Editor's Note: A very successful and musical adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses premiered at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires last summer. It had a wonderful cast, a smart score and with luck, the director and company artistic director will see to it that it reaches a wider audience before too long. For a review of this musical version, renamed The Game, go here.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Written by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Tim Fywell

Starring: Emilia Fox
With: Jared Harris, Polly Walker, Sarah Woodward, Dilys Laye, Jeremy Edwards, Jayne Ashbourne, Laurence Penry-Jones
Designer: Robery Innes-Hopkins
Lighting Designer: David Hersey
Sound: John Leonard for Aura
Music: John Lunn
Movement: Jane Gibson
Fights: Malcolm Ranson
Running time: Two hours forty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1785
Booking to 27th March 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th December 2003 Performance at the Playhouse, Northumberland Avenue London WC2 (Tube: Embankment)
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