by Frankie Parham
Beneath all the powdered wigs and tightly strung corsets, 18th century France was bursting with selfish, sex-crazed, revenge-seeking aristocrats – apparently.
Dangerous Liaisons (as adapted by Christopher Hampton from the 1782 epistolary novel) follows the charming Sébastien de Valmont (Alexander Stewart), already having an affair with married Émilie (Emily Rees Jones) and determined to seduce the virtuous – and married – Marie de Tourvel (Kitty Kaletsky). She is staying with Valmont's aunt (Katherine Eve) while Monsieur de Tourvel is away. At the same time, the malicious Isabelle de Merteuil (Emerald Fennell) is determined to corrupt the young Cécile de Volanges (Sophie Siem), whose mother (Danielle Stevens) has recently brought her out of a convent to be married to a former lover of Merteuil. An opportunity for revenge arises when Cécile falls in love with her music tutor, Raphael Danceny (Dominic Conte). Merteuil and Valmont pretend that they wish to help the secret lovers, delivering their letters and gaining their trust, but end up leaving themselves and their victims with a price to pay.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel is great material for a gripping drama: it offers everything from love to violence, deceit and sex – a lot of sex. Intriguingly, this capacity for immorality is not limited to the aristocrats – embroiled in parallel love games are also their inferior servants, in the form of Azalon (Jonathan Rhodes) and Julia (Roisin Watson). Decadence stains every level of society; everyone has a sinful flaw they wish to hide.
The play also gives us, over two centuries later, the enjoyment of dressing up in what can only be described as tents for ladies and high-heeled boots for men. Eleanor Matthews has done spectacularly with the look of the show, with the actors truly appearing as though they have stumbled out from a time-warp.
For all this potential, which director Gareth Russell has worked hard to muster, the performances feel shamefully flat. Fennell’s Isabelle has all the wickedness, but lacks the lustre. Able to show a restrained disdain for the Madame de Volanges (a convincingly prude Stevens), there is never a sense that she feels any true passions in the presence of her confidante, Sébastien. The latter is similarly disappointing: Stewart gives his character’s voice an attractively sensual musicality, but is too nonchalant to exude the pride he takes in his “exploits”. Admittedly, Kaletsky is admirable as the sophisticated Marie, grimly aware of her own desires, while a sweet chemistry sputters between the jittery Danceny and Cécile (an adoringly naïve Siem – the troupe’s most solid performer). But, it still feels like all look and no feeling.
Isabelle crudely tells Sébastien that “love is something you use; not something you fall into”. Unfortunately, many of the actors do not listen to this advice – they fall into their roles, expecting the aesthetics to do the work for them.
Wadham Moser Theatre: Run ends on February 2nd