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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Playhouse Theatre December 2003

Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the classic French novel of sexual intrigue was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, then transferred to the West End and ran for years, then toured for more years, and has been revived at one time or another by just about every resident theatre in Britain.

The story has also been filmed three times, so it is hard to believe there is anyone left who hasn't seen it. If there is, they are not served by this lifeless, passionless, sexless revival.

The play is built around a pair of eighteenth-century debauchees, male and female. They get their jollies by despoiling others, and in the course of the play he seduces and abandons a young virgin and an unusually virtuous married woman, while she listens to his progress reports, occasionally assists by pretending to counsel his victims, and holds out the promise of access to her bed as his ultimate reward.

And so it is about sex, self-indulgence, immorality and, at its potential best, the discoveries that constant surrender to passion is a kind of slavery and that empty pleasures eventually feel empty. And director Tim Fywell and his cast have managed to bring none of that to the stage.

Playing the conspirators, Polly Walker and Jared Harris are so far from suggesting debauchees with a constant sexual tension between them that they meet each time on stage as if they had never met before, without a  hint of any history, any chemistry or any potential future.

She is particularly blank, reciting every speech, be it a reaction to his adventures or an assertion of her own sexual independence, with all the ardour and innuendo of a TV newscaster reading from an autocue.

I'm not aware of seeing Jared Harris before, so I don't know if the wildly effeminate manner and multiple speech defects (so that a word like 'sacrifice' comes out as 'thakwifith') are his own or affected for the role.

If the first, he was wildly miscast; if the second, he has been woefully misdirected. It is simply impossible to accept as an irresistible seducer a figure who behaves like Kenneth Williams and sounds like a combination of Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the cat.

But they are not alone. Everyone else in the cast is equally wooden and lifeless, with none of the characters or their expressed emotions carrying any reality. The acting throughout rarely rises above the amateur level, shouting so as to be heard in the rear, but with no hint of characterisation or real understanding of the words.

When everyone in a play is bad, and bad in the same way, then all the blame falls in one place. There is no need to name and shame the other actors, some of whom may someday work again. The failure is entirely director Tim Fywell's.

Gerald Berkowitz

(The show closed in three weeks}

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Review - Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Playhouse 2003