Every generation hides the shameful deeds of the overpaid and over-sexed aristocracy beneath the veneer of charm and sensibility; Dangerous Liaisons is no exception. Every generation, it seems, has presented a new version of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel; this play is no different. It takes us through the story of Valmont and Merteuil, two bored, young aristocrats who challenge each other to complete various sexual conquests for various sexual rewards, trying to pretend that they have not fallen in love along the way. It sounds raunchy and, at times, it is: Valmont, played by Ziad Samaha, seems to effortlessly drape himself over a succession of women with probing hands and eager lips.
Of the many adaptations, the most famous are probably the one with John Malkovich (from Being John Malkovich) and Cruella de Vil – Dangerous Liaisons 1988 – and the one with Ryan Phillippe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Cruel Intentions 1999. This new production has minor elements of both, but very credibly stands on its own – particularly due to its well-crafted script. Christina Drollas, who adapted the novel and directed the production, offers a remarkably apt script which highlights the humour of the (slightly ridiculous) plot while retaining the darker elements that build to an exciting denouement. Her direction is skilful, and the actors drift naturally across the stage, often ending up with their faces very close together. But she lifts the production above lowest common denominator and lends a depth to the characters and their pasts that enriches the plot.
Alice Porter plays the Marquise de Merteuil with a casual air of boredom that manages to suggest a fragile heart beneath and Claudia King as Cecile is convincingly naïve, suggestible and a little bit tragic. Her histrionics in a rather uncomfortable seduction scene were perfectly on the mark – panicked and distressed. But it is Samaha who stands out: we do not know if his proclamations of love or his depraved machinations are the sincere aspect of his character and, I suppose, that is the point. He has some of the acting skill of John Malkovich and some of the looks of Ryan Philippe (luckily for him it is not the other way around) and he keeps the energy levels of the production well topped-up.
With 1930s period costume, a set complete with mezzanine floor, and live piano music this show is clearly the product of plenty of thought, and I think this pays off. This is a play about image and how we adapt our personality to our circumstance. On top: respectability. Beneath the surface: sex. Dig a little deeper still and you may find a heart. Lotharios can go along for some tips, the chaste for some titillation and everyone else for a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Four stars ****