Two hundred years separated the publication of Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel of seduction and revenge and Christopher Hampton’s celebrated play. And it is now 30 years since the RSC premiere starring Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson. Another time lapse is also important: in seven years’ time the self-centred lives of the aristocrats who inhabit Laclos’s pages will be swallowed up by the French Revolution.
Josie Rourke has chosen to focus on the slipperiness of time. There is an edginess, a tension as we observe a moment that will soon be over but is simultaneously real as long as it has an audience; it is then, now, or perhaps never.
The story of the beautiful, manipulative Marquise and her ex-lover, and their plots to seduce a young virgin and a blameless wife for their own pleasure and revenge, that could seduce an audience too. But Rourke does not want us to lose perspective, however brilliant, witty and attractive they are. We are not for a moment lulled into sharing a gorgeous world of historical escapism. Tom Scutt’s costumes, gleaming under dozens of candles in twinkling chandeliers, are indeed sumptuous – especially those of the women in their delicate pink, blue and cream gowns and peignoirs – but they are shown against scuffed walls, while portraits rest on the floor as if ready for removal. Elaborate bows and flourishes are used only for satirical or comic purposes and there is a modern directness in the way characters address each other. Silken drapes first cover the furnishings and then are removed from innocent Cecile (Morfydd Clark), like a delicious gift, as Valmont sets about seducing her.
Merteuil acknowledges that she and Valmont need an audience. Play acting, for each other or less perceptive onlookers, is part of their relationship. Janet McTeer, statuesque, languid, low-voiced, with eyes that flash gimlet intelligence, has the measure both of Merteuil’s cleverness and her well-disguised vulnerability. As the play ends – Hampton does not punish her with disgrace and banishment from society – it is clear that she has, nevertheless, lost all that she might have cared for. Rourke has her standing with Madame de Volanges, the abandoned Cecile’s mother (Adjoah Andoh) and Valmont’s aunt (Una Stubbs) holding their cards close to their chest. There will, it is clear, be little of any ‘game’ left to play.
Dominic West seems less at ease with the role of Valmont, even fluffing a few lines, but he ultimately persuades as the other half of the wicked partnership whose downfall is to succumb to love. Elaine Cassidy as the puritanical Madame de Tourvel and Edward Holcroft as Merteuil’s gauche lover provide colourful support.
The production will be screened by NT Live on January 28.