Sunday, April 22, 2012

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Sydney Theatre Company and UBS Investment Bank present LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES was adapted by Christopher Hampton from the 1780, epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985. A play about love and revenge. A play about betrayal and cruelty. In Sydney, the Nimrod Theatre Company produced this play at the Seymour Centre in 1987 with Hugo Weaving as Le Vicomte De Valmont and Angela Punch-McGregor as La Marquise de Merteuil. 25 years later, under the direction of Sam Strong, Mr Weaving investigates the character, Valmont, and the play again, this time with  Pamela Rabe as La Marquise De Merteuil. And why would Mr Weaving, one of Australia's great acting talents, want to re-investigate this play? I would suggest another opportunity to realise the opportunities available in Mr Hampton's writing, may be the cardinal one.

Amongst others, as well, I'm sure.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES is a masterful adaptation and play. A lesson for any young writer, or otherwise, to observe the craft of the playwright. Observe, study, Mr Hampton's meticulous use of language, the vocabulary. The syntactical control of the musicalities of the phrase and sentence, speech structures, that reveal the sub-textual opportunities of the characters devious developments - the possible thought process - the syntax spaces being one of the keys for the actors to investigate the character machinations, and to find the wicked, wicked comedy of the play. Add the finically careful, solicitous information written in the instructions for the actors to reveal, to facilitate, and you have an exemplary primary source for interpretative creativity. There is a superstructure of magnificent clarity in this writing, that the actors and director can have, with insistent 'close reading' , to assist them to unravel and to organise the plasticity of the moments, the live adrenalin impulses that happen in the instant of acting, for transparent, great story telling. The challenge to the actor is to do justice to this work template, and it is, deceptively,enormous. If there is evidence needed that the writer is the centre of the theatre experience, here it is.Take the writer's blue print as your guide, and expand and rise to the possibilities. The challenge of all classic writing, in all its forms, of every period.

Read closely, (even out loud) note the syntax carefully:
MERTEUIL: That's enough, Vicomte.

VALMONT: You're absolutely right. Shall we go up?

MERTEUIL: Shall we what?

VALMONT:Go up. Unless you prefer, this, if my memory serves, rather purgatorial sofa.

MERTEUIL:I believe it's time you were going.


VALMONT: No. I don't think so. We made an arrangement. I really don't think I can allow myself to be taken advantage of a moment longer.

MERTEUIL: Remember I'm better at this than you are.

VALMONT: Perhaps. But it's always the best swimmers who drown. Now. Yes or no? Up to you, of course. I wouldn't dream of trying to influence you. I therefore confine myself to remarking that a no will be regarded as a declaration of war. So. One single word is all that is required.

MERTEUIL: All right.

(She looks at him evenly for a moment, almost long enough for him to conclude that she has made her answer. But she hasn't. It follows now, calm and authoritative.)


 Page 95, Faber and Faber, 1985 edition.

The play had been in the unconscious percolation of the artist for some time it seems :The novel had been a set text in Mr Hampton's studies at Oxford, where he studied French and German, and was his favourite book at the time.

"What was your method for turning the novel into a play script?"
I spent more time thinking about it than writing it. Getting the structure right was very difficult, and I drew a huge geographical chart to figure out where characters needed to be, so there was a lot of logistical shuffling. Then I needed a style to write it in. My first idea was to write it in 18th century English, so I read a lot of Smollett and Fielding -(Add Samuel Richardson, especially, CLARISSA). Then I realised it was rather distancing, so I threw that out and started to write in a contemporary way, with people saying "fuck off" and so on. Then it occurred to me to have 18th Century syntax and elaborate sentences, but in a modern style.Once I had that in my head it worked very well. The freedom of adapting a French novel with no dialogue meant I could somehow invent my own language.
Sam Strong, the director of this production, in the first of many risky choices, decided to remove it visually from its historical setting and, rather, with his Set Designer, Dale Ferguson, find a contemporary world that would illustrate, "how little the world changes",  the timelessness of the human- inhuman activity of the two protagonists of this play. A place which signalled the present privileged, those, with no need to concern themselves with the making of money, just, in the luxuriating of it. In filling time with manipulative games, having others as their play-things, as a game of childish one-up-manship.Nothing else to do!

The resolution, is a carpet muffled room and entrance hall of quasi-eighteenth century details of interior design, that one might find in a contemporary edition of Architectural Digest. Chandeliers, furniture, detail of heavy, soundless doors, key holes and keys, and space. The choices used to convey this milieu, by Mr Ferguson and Strong, are impeccable, and even more rewarding is the fact that this one set serves, without perceptible quibble, for each of the many locations, public rooms and private rooms - bedrooms(!) -  with no time consuming physical shifts of furniture or props. Here, instead, shifts in the lighting design by Hartley T A Kemp can claim much credit. Sumptuous, subtle and satisfying. Cinematic in its unconscious audience contract.

The characters of the play, are, then, clothed in garments of contemporary, conservative, but, conspicuous wealth to further re-enforce this new world, time context. It is in the cloth, the drape and gentle colourings - nothing ever vulgar, just sometimes, startling - the first dress of Ms Ricardo as Cecile. Mel Page is the Costume Designer - bouquets.

The hushed environment is intruded by 'jazzy' composition in moments of scene demarcation and counterpointed with period piano, harpsichord background to the actual rooms of the action, when necessary. The now and the then, present, and supported with aural backgrounds. Composer, Alan John; Sound Design, Steve Francis.

The next interesting director's choice is the varied dialects the actors seem to explore to create a hierarchy of status, generation and class. Speaking in a range of Australian-English choice: the over projected educated correctness of Mr Weaving in contrast to a variation of vernacular 'slang' sounds to a breathy hauteur from Ms Rabe, to the received correctness of Ms Harders and the broader sounds of the  middle class, Heather Mitchell (Mme de Volanges) and Justine Clarke (La Presidente De Tourvel), to the youngsters, Ashley Ricardo (Emilie), James Mackay (Danceny). Geraldine Hakewill (Cecile) and the servant 'Aussie' spread of Mr TJ Power (Azolan). The sounds making the most of the invented 18th century language for the Australian audience. Sounds that were recognisably our own. It worked best when consistent, the sounds having been contracted with the audience, and then maintained. Some were better at it than others.

Mr Weaving and Ms Rabe give wonderful performances and I certainly relished the maturity of their craftsmanship.Whether Mr Weaving is occasionally too energetically jolting, both vocally, and certainly in the 'dancing' of his physicalities,(I loved, what I imagined as referenced images from the paintings of Fragonard - for instance, THE BOLT AND THE STOLEN KISS) and whether the contrast of Ms Rabe's Merteuil, seated so comfortably to the unsteady walk around the furniture and to the mirror for hair adjustments, are slightly too exaggerated, is a matter of taste and conjecture.As offered character clues to the games of the two, it is intriguing to discuss.

To cast Mr Weaving as Valmont and Ms Rabe as Merteuil is a piece of bravado on the part of the director. I mean this only in the sense that the characters, as written in both sources, the novel and the play, are considerably younger than either of these actors appear. This Valmont and Merteuil are certainly representatives of the 'amortalists' of today's baby boomer generation who will not grow 'old' gracefully. That generation that believes the new 60 is the new 50, or, as in this case, that 50 is the new 40.(one of the characters in the play, Gercourt, is referred to, as 'a geriatric of 36'!!) The activities, not only the mental battles of strategy that these two friends are inordinately preoccupied with, and the sexual exploits of both these characters in the course of the story, certainly bring this novel/play into explaining some aspects of contemporary figures like, maybe, Carla Bruni and Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Belosconi.

Adele Horin in the NEWS REVIEW section of The SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, (April 21-22, 2012) writes "... We boomers want to age disgracefully, kicking our heels up, living life to the full. And that's all very possible in our 50s, 60s and 70s providing we have the money....". Valmont and Merteuil, as represented in this new setting of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, certainly, have the money, and, the time to kill.

There is insight and some risk in these choices by Mr Strong. They do succeed for some of us, mostly. Although, in our present cultural stasis of 'political correctness' the sight, or provoked imaginative reality of this Valmont and Merteuil ravishing the bodies of Cecile (she is only just 15) and Danceny (of about 20) may, for some, ring bells of alarmed distaste of paedophillia. Just how remote these people are to the world of the Sydney Theatre Cmpany audience could be a matter of one's ability to suspend disbelief. I wonder, how much I was glad to revisit a great play, or relished the casting, that  carried me through some of the production choices, that I might otherwise have been unhappy about? I loved the inventive period adjustment to the duel scene between Danceny and Valmont - the growing tension relentlessly tangible. I thought the closing overlaid images of the wreckage of the lives of all the characters was artistry and craft of a thoughtful and theatrical director. I certainly enjoyed myself.

The best performance, at my visit, came from Justine Clarke as La Presidente De Tourvel. Her agonies of love and guilt, the struggle with herself over the crushing weight of the sexual allure and a possible sin filled love entanglement with Valmont was anguish making, and delicately woven.The beige/pink dress, the tight hair arrangement, all the given circumstances of characterisation were put into action for audience belief.The speed of Ms Clarke's thought and language usage was exhilarating and all the more involving because of the vertiginous spiral of blessed pain she revealed.(Temptation being built into being a Catholic, of course. A kind of blesssed gift from God!!) A force that was hopeless for her to try to resist. Mr Weaving's Valmont was duly devastated and the surprised awakening to a true love experience made palpably truer because of the conviction of Ms Clarke's fragile Tourvel.These two actors together had a powerful veracity.Powerful, and, ultimately justifying of the tragedy of Mr Strong's final stage picture of heaped bodies and aghast witnesses.

The control and confidence that Mr Strong seemed to give all these actors is best reflected in the magnificent work of two actors in smaller roles. Ashley Ricardo in two fleeting scenes with Mr Weaving as the courtesan Emilie, makes both a physical impression of beauty, but also of textual perspicacity in clear and urgent story telling.Body and mind, voice, all servants to the task given her by Mr Hampton - a real chemistry with Mr Weaving. Jane Harders as Mme De Rosemonde, gave, in her small contributions accurate and indelible readings.Not a word, pause or expression of range and pace were not useful in moving the story forward and /or revealing character. The short scene at the end of act one between Rosemonde and the distressed Tourvel became one of the key scenes in my experience of the production, Ms Harders' laser technique highlighting Mr Hampton's erudition:
ROSEMONDE: ... None of this is a surprise to me. The only thing which might surprise one is how little the world changes. ....

Rosemonde's knowing triumph over Merteuil, in the last moment of the play, the stare, a knock out of silent acting, embodied with power. Indeed, Merteuil may have met the player that can trump her hand. Rosemonde has, of course, being playing much longer. She is, supposedly, a lively, intelligent, sympathetic 84 - having been round 'the mulberry bush' many times before, no doubt.

The depth of talent throughout this company is rewarding indeed.

This production is a very good night in the theatre. The aggravated argument of social relevancy of the play, that is sometimes bandied about can be subdued by the expertness and elegance of execution of this production. To watch good actors practice their gifts and talents on such a well crafted play, with accurate and thoughtful production values, may well be enough. For my 80 odd dollars, it was.

At the end of the original production in 1985-7, of this comically cruel and culturally remote play, it finished thus:

MERTEUIL: ... ... I suggest our best course is to continue with the game.

(Her words seem to exert a calming effect on her companions: and indeed, they resume playing. The atmosphere is serene. Very slowly, the lights fade; but just before they vanish, there appears on the back wall, fleeting but sharp, the unmistakable silhouette of the guillotine.)
A sensational image that wrapped the world of 1780 France into a frightening perspective. For us in 1987, a hindsight, invaluable for us, watching.The revolution was just around the corner for this class. The play seemed to snap into a socially meaningful context. The 'greed is good' mantra of the 1980's would have its "cum-uppance". It was not just a clever, amusing adaptation of a French novel. Maybe, if this production faded with an image of the stock market index plunging, on the back wall, it may have had the same impact. A revolution just around the corner!! Another "cum-uppance".

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Hampton, Weaving, Rabe, Clarke, Mitchell, Harders Ferguson, Strong. - names enough to capture my money and time.

Do go.

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