Those who have read Chorderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel know that there is nothing univocal there – readers are supposed to use all their imagination to read between words the meaning of which rarely correspond to their face value. Those who saw Stephen Frears’s adaptation for the screen of Cristopher Hampton’s play based on the above-mentioned book are probably spoilt by the brilliant performances of Glenn Close and John Malkovich, who were unafraid of going larger than life and achieving an almost mythical, symbolic status to their characters.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the first New York revival since the Broadway première in 1987. When I try to use one word to describe my impression of it, there is only one that comes to my mind – kapellmeisterlich. This is a word not used for theatre, since the idea is to describe the performance of a conductor who achieves reliable results based on his immersion on the stylistic atmosphere where the work was produced. In a kapellmeisterlich performance, nobody expects to be overwhelmed, for no-one has deeply thought about the work to be performed – the results are predictable yet satisfying because they are made out of the tradition associated to it.
In that sense, I see something of a Kapellmeister in director Rufus Norris. He offered a thoroughly correct approach to the work – the settings are elegant and coherent with late XVIIIth century decoration, costumes are exquisitely and stylishly fashioned, the stage direction is efficient and the cast is very talented. But not only is everything exactly as you could have imagined before you entered the theater, but also you cannot help comparing the results to what you have seen in Stephen Frears’s movie – and having the famous mirror walls as shown in Glenn Close’s boudoir makes the source of inspiration even more evident. However, the more evident comparison is that the book’s main quality – its ambiguity, the exercise of cunning from the reader to see through these sophisticated characters’ attitudes is almost entirely lost in a staging devoid of demi-tintes. No wonder the audience took most of what was shown on stage as comedy. A game of destruction and desire played on stage reduced to the mere entertainment of Sunday afternoon – I guess this is was not exactly what this play should be about.
Laura Linney, for example, should be praised for the economy of gestures and the sense of restrained tension. However, behind her restrain, there was very little to discover. Her Marquise de Merteuil was something you could guess from the five first minutes while this is a character who should be eluding our understanding to the very end. In one word, there was no danger in her – and the book shows us that the relationship with this woman was everything but safe. I know it is unfair to compare Hampton’s Merteuil to Heiner Müller’s (in Quartett), a play whose unsettling dialogues leave the audience uncomfortable and ill at ease to these days, but I miss what I saw in Brazilian actress Beth Goulart, whose forceful restraint showed instead a non-human quality close to the surface, the cruelty of an animal on a cage, of a force of nature controlled but ready to explode, of something beautiful yet lethal – the restraint of a samurai, the elegance of a bullfighter, the impassivity of a surgeon while cutting through the layers of other people’s flesh.
Ben Daniels’s Valmont had the right balance between the necessary patina of society manners and virile energy. As much as his Merteuil, he also walked dangerously close to the limits of monochrome. Although the character goes through strongly conflicted ideas and feelings, one could always tell which one was the “dominant” one so muted the others were in the background. Again I have no doubt that, as much as Linney, Daniels is an excellent actor; one just feels that the director left them operating within the limits of comfort. If we were speaking of a play by Feydeau, that would have definitely worked. But I don’t think this is the case here.
Curiously, the new and old generation are the shining features of this production: bête-de-scène Siân Phillips invests her Madame de Rosemonde with so much energy and feeling that in the end you have the impression she is more important to the plot than she actually is; and Jessica Collins’s vulnerable Madame de Tourvel has such freshness of expression, such vividness of feelings that you feel as if you were witnessing something freshly brought from the nature, a bouquet of flowers still full of life but in the actual process of decay. This is definitely an actress I would like to see again. I am not so enthusiastic about Mamie Gummer’s Cécile Volange, who again falls into the trap of sameness in her performance strictly for laughs. But don’t mistake me – nothing is really bad in this production compared to the soundtrack. If you want to copy Stephen Frear’s movie and use Handel’s Ombra mai fu, do as Frears did and hire a professional singer for that. I can tell you the strained falsetto featured here only makes sense as an expression of anguish experimented by some of these characters!