Tuesday 7 February 2012

Les Liaisons Dangereuses @ Guildhall School of Music & Drama

"A girl of 15 was a coffer whose lock had to be forced, while a woman of 30 was venison, well ripe and good to put on a spit.  A 40 year-old was a great bastion where the cannon had made more than a breach.  And at 50 - an old lantern in which one only places a wick with regret."

Christopher Hampton's play, like Stephen Frears's infamous film Dangerous Liaisons starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, is adapted from the French epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos.  Set within the eighteenth century French aristocracy, it's a narrative that focuses firmly on sex, where the boundaries between love and lust are blurred.  Love is viewed as an incurable sickness that results only in death, a manipulative device used as "a lubricant to nature".  The plot plays out as a game of one-upmanship between Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil as they manipulate the characters around them for their own personal entertainment.  Yet bubbling beneath the surface are their true feelings, threatening to emerge.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an incredibly wordy (and long) play, which the Guildhall students coped well with, even if some of the lines were rushed.  Though written in a twentieth century idiom, the script contains restrained and subtle sexual innuendo appropriate for the context and, as such, the scenes with the two protagonists play out like a battle of wordplay.  However, for a play about sex, it lacked some chemistry and bite between the main players.  For all the play's ostentatious, aristocratic context, the drama itself is very intimate and private (literally) and this production did lack some of the desired intensity, though the individual characteristics were present and well-rounded owing to research into the original novel.  The majority of the comedic lines were played to the audience and this overtly theatrical approach unfortunately tended to force laughter.  Individually, Edwin Thomas offered a fine performance as Valmont, at times reminiscent of a young Kenneth Branagh, and Beatrice Walker was suitably vindictive as Merteuil.

Nicky Bunch's set design, though minimalist, was bold and provided a clear sense of the lavish surroundings without encroaching on the intimacy of the drama.  The set did lack clearly defined domestic spaces which tended to confuse the various exits and entrances to the stage.  It did, however, allow for an openness and fluidity, giving the impression that the influence of the key players was inescapable.  The bedroom was hidden from view beneath the stage so that, for all the play's sexual front, sex itself was swept aside.  The use of a ceiling mirror for these scenes was a particularly narcissistic touch.

Additionally, an onstage cellist (criminally uncredited in the programme) provided musical excerpts for the scene changes and was used diegetically during some scenes.  This created a suitable mood and atmosphere to set each scene, although the excerpts themselves were from a wide period of history not always contemporary to the setting.  They were still well played and great to see Guildhall embracing both sides of its artistic curriculum.

Despite its flaws, this was a solid production of a difficult play performed by a fine cast of young actors.


Watch: There are still performances left of Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the 7th - 9th February at the Silk Street Theatre.