Fine friends

The Melbourne Theatre Company opened its 2004 season with a new production of Christopher Hampton’s theatrical adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the famous novel by Choderlos de Laclos which tells the story of two former lovers, Marquise de Merteuil (Josephine Byrne) and Le Viscomte de Valmont (Marcus Graham), who scheme to ruin the virtue of two piously devout women, the Présidente de Tourvel (Asher Keddie) and Cécile Volanges (Jessica Gower).

 Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first published in 1782, seven years before the fall of the ancien regime and against the background of a stirring civil conflict now known as the French Revolution. Written so close to a time of war, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is itself particularly concerned with warfare and military strategy, and the never-ending quest for power even if it is only in the realm of romance and personal relationships. Even now, after the society and context in which the story takes place has long since disappeared, Les Liaisons Dangereuses offers a timely commentary on the nature of conflict, corruption and immorality.

Directed by MTC’s artistic director, Simon Phillips, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a stylish and entertaining production. Often funny, elegantly fashioned lines bristle with malicious wit. The characters of Merteuil and Valmont both fascinate and repel as they engage in psychological combat, striving to out-do the other in capturing and destroying the souls. With impudence they wave their conquests in front of the other like spoils of war. But while the onstage jousting is absorbing as it is entertaining, the production does much more than just follow the boudoir antics and parlour skirmishes of the decadent upper class.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ irresistible appeal lies in the shocking contrast between the intense, disturbing sense of societal and individual moral decay, and the beautiful, polished exterior of civilised elegance. The set sparkles with a stark purity and acts as a reminder of these contradictions. Incandescent white costumes and props and sweet-faced cherubs aloft fluffy white clouds contrast with the evil games of conquest and revenge happening on stage.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is ultimately a moral tale, behind the tale of lust and betrayal lurks the question of the capacity of human beings to treat each other with respect, and the rightfulness of doing so. It is often said that there are no winners in war and the battles raged in Les Liaisons Dangereuses offer no exception. In the end, and hopefully not giving too much away, the Présidente de Tourvel dies of grief and shame, Cecile, full of regret for her adultery with Valmont seeks salvation in a convent with the intention of becoming a nun, and Valmont gets his just deserts, slain in duel by Cecile’s intended. In the MTC production, it is only the fate of the Marquise de Merteuil that is left in doubt. Audience members who had not read the book or seen the film would be left wondering whether she receives her comeuppance. The play does conclude, however, hinting at the impending downfall of the aristocracy—that itself suggestive that a life lived in selfish excess, thoughtless to needs of others, is, ultimately, folly.

Kirsty Grant is the advertising and marketing manager at Jesuit Publications

 

 

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