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Review: Dangerous Liaisons
This is the kind of play that should do very well in Oxford. A slick and attractive production, with a slick (even oleaginous, in the case of the male lead) and attractive cast, with a slick and attractive marketing campaign. Dynamic duo Ramin Sabi and Christina Drollas know their target audience, and, despite some fairly major box office hurdles – finalist agoraphobia, undergraduate apathy, ghastly weather–this should do very well. Hers is a tremendously engaging production, and one that is superficially rather a lot of fun. However, engaging (more’s the pity) doesn’t necessarily mean good: those with a more profound understanding of either the book or what makes for a superlative production may leave rather disappointed.
On the face of it, though, things are bright. The laughs are not infrequent, the set is absolutely glorious, the cast are admittedly mostly rather dashing. The lower sixth drama class I spoke to at the interval declared the show ‘amazing’, and the Vicomte, apparently, a ‘lad’. In some respects, this is actually very apt: it is amazing that someone with Drollas’ relative inexperience should have managed to organise and engineer a production that, at its best points, is really rather professional. And the Vicomte? ‘Lad’ might not be the obvious choice of word: I actually came to find Ziad Samaha’s performance as Valmont immensely irritating (not least because he appears to have developed quite a pervasive little cough) – but his performance is admittedly quite misogynistic. I look forward to no longer seeing his face all over Oxford - including, apparently, over the urinals at a number of night-time establishments.
Ella Waldman’s Tourvel, on the other hand, is superb. Well-cast, presumably well-directed, and definitely very well done, Waldman delivers a gold star performance in a hugely difficult role. Claudia King is also to be applauded for appropriate breathiness. A more faltering casting decision has been made in Alice Portas’ Madame de Merteuil, who I found less convincing. Her scenes with Samaha lack any kind of sexual charge: though they paw at one enough concertedly enough, they could easily be assistants in an abattoir. That said, everyone looks very attractive, and (in a technique often used to great effect in movies that are made for television) the strains of a piano in the background made everything ever so much more emotional, darling.
Even in the hands of the ‘pros’, adaptation is a challenging process (cf. most of the Harry Potter films): Drollas has accordingly done quite well, though the ending is – if not totally botched –rather anti-climatic. In the Valmont’s final scene, they have missed out on a good opportunity to engage with a bit of ‘gore’, while Drollas’ rewriting of Merteuil’s endpoint feels unfinished. The choice to put it in the late thirties, however, is sometimes incongrouous and often bizarre: this really doesn't work with either the semantic field or the themes of the narrative. The epistolary conceit is done away with almost entirely: the product is a fresh, pithy script, with plenty of humour. Should Drollas seek to have it reproduced, however, I would seek editorial support for clunkier or more wooden lines. Merteuil asks her young lover whether he has someone to write his lines for him, or whether he takes them from 'bad melodramas': I doubt this anticipates the winces that followed from a number of audience members.
A final note: given the number of French undergraduates likely to descend on the Playhouse this week, I recommend asking for some handy hints on appropriate character name pronunciation. A very pretty show, though.
Three and a half stars.