It’s frightening to see how readily a story about love, sex, and power, set in pre-revolutionary France among the aristocracy, still resonates today.
British playwright Christopher Hampton recognized the timelessness of Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), with its exploration of human behavior and motivation. He adapted the novel into a play, which premiered in 1985 at the Royal Shakespeare Company, transferred first to the West End and then to Broadway, and was made into a 1988 film. Now it’s been revived by the Donmar Warehouse in London and broadcast around the world as part of the National Theatre Live series.
Liaisons tells the tale of two aristocratic power brokers who become locked in a deadly struggle of love, sex, and intrigue. The Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West, of Showtime’s The Affair) are the players in this battle to the death. Once lovers, they fell out and are now locked together in a dangerous, complex wager. Merteuil promises she’ll go to bed with Valmont again, if he succeeds in seducing two women: the innocent young Cecile, engaged to another one of Merteuil’s lovers, and the pious Madame de Tourvel, faithful to a negligent husband. Meanwhile, to amuse herself, Merteuil succeeds in seducing Danceny, Cecile’s young tutor.
Are they having fun yet?
The complexity of these entanglements makes for lurid viewing. And yet, we’re the only ones having fun: The characters themselves seem to derive no pleasure from the sexual conquests, just from outmaneuvering of one another, and occasionally experiencing the momentary thrill of victory. Seduction becomes a weapon whose purpose it is to degrade and humiliate others.
The protagonists’ appetites for victory are insatiable, however, and the battlefield of these sexual skirmishes soon become littered with their own bodies. Valmont finds that, for the first time in his life, he has fallen in love, with the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, who has succumbed to him out of true passion. Enraged, Merteuil makes her next deadly move — she refuses to grant Valmont his prize (herself) unless he breaks with Tourvel. The results are devastating for all.
Curiously, Hampton has turned this 18th-century tale into a feminist piece with modern resonance. Merteuil is played by Janet McTeer, an actress of considerable power and stage presence. Over six feet tall, she towers over the others and is an equal match for Dominic West’s stature and charms. “Card sharks sit at separate tables,” she warns him, articulating the view that, in the game of love, sex, and power, the only way a woman can win is overpower her adversary, even if it means declaring war. “It’s out of my control,” Valmont says to Tourvel, as he loses to Merteuil and ultimately faces his own downfall. Ironically, Merteuil has lost the wager, too.
Josie Rourke directs these skirmishes with skill and alacrity, and Tom Scutt’s spare set glitters with graceful chandeliers that rise and fall, as do the fates of the characters.
In these power games between the sexes, both Laclos and Hampton seem to be saying that no one wins and that “love,” the most precious prize of all, is unobtainable. Numerous contemporary playwrights have tackled the topic, from Harold Pinter (Betrayal) to Sam Shepard (Fool For Love) to Patrick Marber (Closer). And yet, none of their characters have pierced the heart of the matter as lethally as Madame Merteuil who says, with final tragic irony: “Our best course is to continue with the game.”