LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES
LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, Sydney Theatre Company in Wharf 1, 5 April-9 June 2012. Photos: Brett Boardman - Pamela Rabe (above) and Hugo Weaving and Justine Clarke (right).
Christopher Hampton's 1985 play, from the novel (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is most often referred to as foreshadowing the French Revolution. This only really makes sense, however, if it's also seen as a harbinger of the end of the Enlightenment. In Sam Strong's thrilling production this thought is spurred by a setting (Dale Ferguson) that powerfully suggests the enduring architectural elegance of the "Age of Enlightenment". The neo-classical interior of tall, double doors that offer glimpses of rooms and ante rooms - and secrets - persuasively evokes the philosophy of physical and conceptual spaces; and in turn echoes the apparently cool style and demeanour of their inhabitants.
La Marquise de Merteuil (Pamela Rabe) and her former lover and co-dependent playmate Le Vicomte de Valmont (Hugo Weaving) are as cultured and deceptive as their surrounds. With no purpose in life other than to be beautiful, comfortable and to please themselves, their intelligence and energy have been curdled by boredom. As well as occupying places of privilege in society and home, they are signifiers of what is almost past (French aristocracy's social hegemony) and what is to come (the Revolution and the rise of the age of the mechanicals).
Privilege has turned Valmont and the Marquise into indolent cats whose primary pleasure is to torment the mice around them: the married and hapless la Presidente de Tourvel (Justine Clarke), whose love Valmont extracts and finally claws to death. Mme de Volanges (Heather Mitchell) whose unwitting ingenuousness drives the Marquise to ruthless distraction. Their younger victims - the virgin Cecile Volanges (Geraldine Hakewill) whom Valmont is determined to deflower; Cecile's true love, le Chevalier Danceny (James Mackay), the manservant Azolan (TJ Power) and the courtesan Emilie (Ashley Ricardo) - are ill-equipped to survive unnoticed and unharmed. There is no visible blood, but the heedless cruelty and beauty of the Vicomte and Marquise are shocking.
Even more shocking is how funny it is. It's partly the rarified and subtle comic skills of Pamela Rabe, who squeezes more out of a raised eyebrow than most can find in a carefully scripted comedy routine; and partly her foil - Hugo Weaving's ennui-sodden libertine is both excruciating and droll. And Jane Harders, as Valmont's acerbic aunt Madame de Rosemonde, also has the classic rapid-fire verbal ability that Hampton's text demands.
It's a tremendous cast and Strong directs their comings and goings and emotional see-saws with a mix of choreography and the passionate understanding of a symphonic conductor. Choosing to eschew powdered wigs and the attendant folderols in favour of contemporary clothing (beautifully realised by Mel Page) also means attention is focused on the play and the actors rather than the usual costume parade. Not that character isn't cleared signalled by the designer's decisions - the Marquise's sophisticated gowns, de Tourvel's frumpy blouse and skirt for instance - and in an even more intriguing way, by the shoes.
Given that nothing on a stage is there by chance, the range and choice of shoes is fascinating. The Marquise's footwear is sumptuous and elegant, Cecile's sensible beige lace-ups signal that they were chosen by her mother and are intended to protect her virginity just as long as possible; Madame de Rosemonde's shoes are as luxe as the Marquise's but, she is an older woman, and she has graduated to comfort and flats. Most curious of all are Valmont's black slip-ons: at first glance they are merely chic and informal, but they're soon revealed as a little the worse for wear, verging on seedy - rather like Valmont himself.
Strong's show is also well served by the others in the creative team. Sound designer Steve Francis and composer Alan John also intensify the colours of the drama with their selections and Hartley TA Kemp's lighting is precise and painterly in the way it persuades the viewer to follow the action. Altogether, this production is a triumph of substance over style; and there's plenty of style too: instead of the play's scripted sword fight between Valmont and Danceny, he's chosen pistols and the staging of the scene is edge-of-the-seat tense. The arc of the drama is clearly defined, however, and by the end it is heart-rending to witness the inevitable. Wonderful theatre - a triumph for all, particularly the lucky audiences.