The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Winter 2015-2016
Christopher Hampton's 1986 adaptation of an eighteenth-century French novel is, through much of its length, a naughty delight, an opportunity to watch thoroughly moral-less people at work and play, and applaud their skill and their joy in their work even as we strain to suppress our outrage.
Josie Rourke's revival makes us aware of the darker sides of the story and characters a little sooner than some previous productions, thus losing some of the fun while adding resonances and dimensions. It has real problems in casting and direction, but is more successful than not.
In upper-class Paris Le Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil, former lovers now friends, amuse themselves by ruining the lives of others.
In the course of the play Valmont seduces and abandons both a teenage virgin fresh out of convent school and a deeply moral and even prudish married woman, and then entertains Merteuil with the stories.
But director Rourke emphasises more than before the subtle differences between the two that will eventually turn the black comedy into uncomic blackness.
Valmont generally just enjoys the game, but Merteuil is driven more by real malice. While he finds it fun to teach the virgin a variety of sexual arts and let her think they're just what everyone does, the Marquise is thinking of the shock to the girl's arranged husband, an old enemy of hers.
While Valmont finds making the married woman fall in love with him an entertaining challenge, Merteuil's motive is the bad girl's deadly serious resentment of the good girl.
And then – and this is as far as I'll go in risking a spoiler – Valmont begins to have real feelings for the married woman.
This production still has naughty fun – there's a letter-writing scene that has become a classic, and Rourke has the cast punch up every line that even remotely sounds like a double entendre – but it becomes darker earlier than others, and there is some cost to that.
There's a gap between Dominic West's easy-going Valmont and Janet McTeer's malice-driven Merteuil from the start, and as a result it's difficult to imagine them as former lovers or to enjoy them as conspirators.
This is compounded by a gap in acting styles. Playing a woman who is always playing one role or another, McTeer makes us too aware of the actress playing the role of a woman playing roles – that is, like the kind of film acting that wins Oscars, she makes us see the actress at work.
Despite looking vaguely uncomfortable in his role (and repeatedly having trouble remembering lines), West's style is much more natural and modern-sounding, almost as if he had worked with a different director.
There's very little chemistry between the two, very little of the sexual tension that should give extra energy to their scenes together (and on which some of the plot depends).
Elaine Cassidy makes us believe the emotional and moral torments the married woman goes through as she violates all her principles, and Morfydd Clark entertainingly captures the girl's mix of innocence and delight in discovering sex.
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