Since all my knowledge of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel comes from the film adaptation Cruel Intentions, one of the greatest teen drama films, there’s a nice mixture of surprise and familiarity in watching the play version. For one thing, the scheming aristocrats who use sex as a weapon and people as toys are much older than Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Philippe were in the film. And the dialogue is a lot more old-fashioned. But what both the film and Christopher Hampton’s play have is the deft and dancing battle of wits between two devious charmers, building towards a tragic climax.
Even with all the talent on board, though, the production is flabby. The stage is covered in furniture and canvases to begin with, which are all removed as the play goes on – this, after all, is an elite on its way out as the French Revolution begins to crest the horizon. The peeling and faded period drawing room set is detailed, if not particularly original. All the women are in huge bustling dresses with pale colours, gliding around the stage like floating meringues – or Îles Flottantes if we’re sticking with the whole calling things by their French name vibe. Yes: it’s period drama. Authentic, and kind of uninteresting.
And I just wonder if Dominic West has the charm that he thinks he has – and that he should have. Sure his big eyes are bright and boyish, and his too-big costume gives him a dinky first form prep school look, but he’s dropping lines and drying up like nobody’s business. And if a gentleman has not eloquence, then one cannot call him charming. Janet McTeer saves him – and saves herself at one point – from needing a prompt by swiftly improvising some dialogue but it’s too late, one too many times, and too disappointingly loose.
Apart from that, McTeer knows exactly what she’s doing as arch-plotter Meurteuil. That deep, assured voice. That unfailing elegance, sweep, authority. And the anger; once or twice a blazing fury threatens to ignite as she laments the oppression of women in society. But you know what? She’s fighting back. That’s why she sleeps with whomever she wants, that’s why she inflicts punishment on men, why she schemes and worms and treats it all like a jolly little game. It’s why she destroys the pathetic virginal innocence of unblemished convent girls. They are not ready for the patriarchal shit that’ll be slung their way. Their mothers don’t teach them what they need to know – because, in a society where women can’t divorce their husbands, where abortion likely means death, where sex is a man’s right to take as and when he pleases, knowing how to sew and sing is not nearly enough. McTeer’s Meurteuil is a woman scorned, and an utterly scornful woman.
On the other hand, West’s Valmont only thinks he has control. In fact he starts to fall in love so he decides to stop being mean to people.
Una Stubbs has the nicest smile, playing one of those ostensible lovely old ladies who actually know EVERYTHING. They’ve seen it all before, they don’t care about all the silly sexy stuff the young folks get up to these days, hell they invented most of that deviance. No, the twilight years are when you play your cards close to your chest, and you use the well practised twinkle in the eye to let schemers like Meurteuil know that you’re onto them.
There’s a real and potent reflection on attitudes to rape in society today. My god it’s uncomfortable watching Valmont force a 15 year old virgin to have sex with him. The language is disturbing enough – she keeps saying ‘no’, he psychologically manipulates her into thinking it’s for the best – but the way West keeps sticking his hand up Cecile’s nightdress, the way he clambers over her and physically asserts his dominance is made by Rourke to seem as nasty as possible. Then later, when the young Cecile owns up to her confidante, Meurteuil makes her feel like she asked for it. Like she wanted it.
Rourke’s production uncomfortably digs into sexual politics, but that serious theme doesn’t sit comfortably alongside the gratifyingly salacious scheming in Hampton’s dialogue and the brilliantly cruel plot of the novel. And along with the various hiccups, it’s a show that aims for a grace which through clumsiness it never achieves.