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When sex goes wrong: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Donmar Warehouse

Well, that didn’t disappoint. I booked Les Liaisons Dangereuses in some trepidation, though: not only is it up there amongst my favourite novels, but for anyone of my generation, a revival will always evoke memories of the 1985 production with Lindsay Duncan and the late, lamented Alan Rickman, and the celebrated Stephen Frears film starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

Happily, Josie Rourke’s production at the Donmar Warehouse measures up.

The plot is gloriously serpentine: it centres on the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), former lovers whose favourite sport is sexual intrigue. Valmont wants to seduce the upright Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy); Merteuil wants him to corrupt Cécile de Volanges (Morfydd Clark), in order to take revenge on her former lover, who has left her to marry Cecéile, who is in love with the callow Chevalier Danceny (Edward Holcroft). Cécile succumbs to Valmont. Merteuil agrees that she will spend another night with Valmont, but only if he provides written proof of his seduction of Madame de Tourvel. And then the intrigues unravel when despite himself, Valmont falls in love with Tourvel and is forced by a furious Merteuil to break with her. It ends with Valmont killed in a duel with Danceny, the exposure of their letters to the public gaze, and the pervading sense of a doomed aristocratic class on the eve of the Revolution.

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Janet McTeer, Dominic West as Merteuil and Valmont

Valmont and Merteuil exist in a series of masks, though their dissoluteness is tempered by self-knowledge and wit. But this is not just a play of surfaces; both are taken by surprise by their own emotions. Christopher Hampton’s superb adaptation, in which every line contains a dagger, more than does justice to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary masterpiece, condensing four volumes into a couple of hours of theatre.

With such an eventful narrative there’s a danger it can tip into melodrama, so the casting is key. The leads have good chemistry. Dominic West’s Valmont is commanding and charismatic (though a couple of his lines are surprisingly shaky), while Janet McTeer is the right blend of deadly and charming, adept at playing the virtuous matron and counsellor who is trusted by Madame de Volanges (Adjoa Andoh) while at the same time helping to corrupt Cécile. Elaine Cassidy, in the difficult virtuous role as Madame de Tourvel, delicately articulates her inner struggle. The scene in which, confronted with her own desire for Valmont, she faints into his arms laces pathos with comedy and is particularly well done. There’s plenty of excellent work in the smaller parts, too: Jennifer Saayeng (last seen in City of Angels at the Donmar) as the courtesan Émilie, Una Stubbs as Madame de Rosemonde and Theo Barklem-Biggs as Valmont’s valet are all strong, though as Danceny Edward Holcroft is not so convincing.

Merteuil and Cécile

Merteuil and Cécile

Sex as a weapon, deceit as strategy, seduction as social practice: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is all about the perils of pleasure. There’s pleasure for the viewer, too in the gorgeous costumes and the candles, and we merrily go along with the intrigue – with the exception of the uncomfortable scene of Valmont’s rape of Cécile. Valmont’s letters present it as a seduction, but the Donmar production allows us to see it through her eyes and therefore neatly wrongfoots the audience, since we’ve all been rooting for the sexy villains.

There’s one oddity about the Donmar production. The ending of Laclos’ novel sees Merteuil exposed; Valmont’s last act of revenge is to have their correspondence published. In Stephen Frears’ 1988 film, Glenn Close is booed at the opera and the last scene sees her savagely removing her face-paint, suggesting the disfigurement of smallpox she suffers in the novel. In the Howard Davies staging in 1985 the last scene was played out against a projection of a guillotine, suggesting how libertine aristocrats will soon be swept away (and perhaps uncomfortably suggesting the Terror as a moral broom). Here, though, the final scene, in which Cécile’s fate is decided by the three older women, hangs ambiguously. There’s a shadow in McTeer’s eyes at that point, as if she realises she’s tiring of the power games, but there’s no overt suggestion that Merteuil will be disgraced. It’s almost as if the whole cycle will begin again with a new set of lovers.

Madame de Tourvel

Madame de Tourvel

I’d forgotten how much Laclos’ main characters group novel-reading disparagingly with sentimentality. Hampton retains these references throughout his adaptation; when Madame de Tourvel is struggling with her love for Valmont, she reads Clarissa – the latter being the novel to which Laclos’ work is most strongly indebted. Laclos’ text also defines itself against the feminocentric novels of Madeleine de Scudéry, whose idealising romances were still being read in the eighteenth century in both France and England, but were increasingly being satirised within fiction. In Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) the heroine Arabella makes a whole series of misjudgements because of her reading of French heroic romance, much as Catherine Morland does with the Gothic variety in Northanger Abbey. Female agency in Laclos is verbal and calculated, and the witty dialogue between Valmont and Merteuil rests on the assumption of intellectual equality. Pierre-Daniel Huet’s 1670 A Treatise of Romances (translated into English in 1672, Wing H3301) makes the connection between high narrative art and gender power relations, arguing that French romances are superior to any other nation’s because of

‘the refinement and politeness of our Galantry; which proceeds (in my opinion) from the great liberty in which the Men in France live with Women: these are in a manner recluses in Italy and Spain, and are separated from Men by so many obstacles, that they are scarce to be seen, and not to be spoken with at all’ ( p.103).

La Carte de Tendre

La Carte de Tendre

It’s a notion articulated strongly in Madeleine de Scudéry’s Clélie (1654), which introduced its readers to the Carte de Tendre, or the map of tenderness. Possibly a collective creation of Scudéry’s Paris salon, it’s a spatial representation of how heterosexual intimacy can and should progress. It begins at Nouvelle Amitié and presents three routes to ‘Tendre-sur-Reconnaissance’ ‘Tendre-sur-Inclination’ and ‘Tendre-sur-Estime’: gratitude, inclination and esteem. Along the way, the lover must pass through towns called Complaisance (obligingness), Petit Soins (small favours), or Obéissance (obedience), but there are dangers for the unwary traveller, who can wander to Negligence (neglect), Légereté (frivolity), Perfidie (treachery) and Orgeuil (pride) and potentially end up in the Mer d’Inimité (sea of Emnity). The most perilous endpoint, though is La Mer Dangereuse, a place of unbridled passion. The map still has the power to inspire now; Gucci’s head designer Alessandro Michele calls clothes ‘an atlas of the emotions’ and Gucci’s womenswear collection for spring this year included a print of La Carte de Tendre on a midi dress.

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

Gucci womenswear collection, Spring 2016

The Carte de Tendre regulates and authorises the emotional interactions between men and women, making them literally readable, though Boileau satirised this as a covert manual of seduction. Merteuil is with Boileau on this: she declares in the play:

‘I became a virtuoso of deceit. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.’

Merteuil’s philosophy of self-interest is diametrically opposed to Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre, but it gestures at a not dissimilar road map within relationships. What they both have in common is a horror of lack of control, or ‘la mer dangereuse’ of passion, and it is exactly that lack of control that forms Merteuil and Valmont’s downfall as they give in to love (or at least, a form of love). Les Liaisons Dangereuses not only figures the patterns of seduction as war, but also subverts the very notion of friendship – the highest possible relationship in Scudéry’s novel, which is presented as a form of perfect understanding. Valmont and Merteuil’s relationship is a twisted version of the friendship so valorised by Scudéry; there is only perfect understanding between Valmont and Merteuil when they share the same malicious objectives. Merteuil’s conviction that sex is the only power a woman can have is the cynical obverse of Clélie’s idealised view of negotiated relationships. Les Liaisons Dangereuses reverses the map of tenderness into a map of dazzling cruelty.



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The bleakness of love: Closer, Donmar Warehouse/Kill Me Now, Park Theatre

They say that Park Theatre was deliberately constructed to resemble the Donmar. This month the programming oddly converges, with two savage relationship plays. The first is the revival of Patrick Marber’s 90s classic Closer at the Donmar, a tightly-constructed four-hander whose plot plays with a series of sexual permutations. Dan (Oliver Chris) and Alice (Rachel Redford) get together; Dan meets Anna (Nancy Carroll) and falls in love with her but stays with Alice; Larry (Rufus Sewell) and Anna meet and marry; Dan and Anna have an affair; Anna leaves Larry for Dan; Larry and Alice have a relationship; Anna goes back to Larry; Dan and Alice reunite; Larry and Anna split; Dan and Alice split. Put like that, it sounds like Midsummer Night’s Dream rewritten by David Mamet.cc051ed2-dd04-44ad-a0cc-c1a20a3c7a0b-1360x2040

When I saw it back in the 1990s I don’t think I properly appreciated the quicksilver shifts of fury, desire and neediness that Marber creates between the characters; each new relationship builds on the emotional residue of the previous one, so that every scene is layered with history of previous exchanges.

All the characters keep insisting on knowing the truth, but the truth always brings pain. Rufus Sewell’s deceptively mild delivery never obscures the rage and manipulation beneath. He absolutely dominates the second act, as Larry moves from bafflement at Anna’s desertion to a calculated relish of maximum revenge. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Redford as Alice, though I thought her reading of the character was right. Alice could so easily be played as your standard damaged child-woman, but she brought a welcome sincerity to the role. I quite liked the idea expressed in the Donmar programme notes that the fifth character of the play is Postman’s Park in Clerkenwell, to which the four protagonists variously return. Bunny Christie’s spare production design highlights the gravestones of the ordinary people buried there, their heroism a mute counterpoint to the self-indulgence of the main characters.

At Park Theatre, whose success is contributing to the gentrification of N4, they’re showing Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, whose bleakness resides in its subject matter rather than its narrative outlook. Jake (Greg Wise) has given up his career as a writer to look after his severely disabled son Joey (Oliver Gomm); Jake is helped also by his younger sister Twyla (Charlotte Harwood) and Joey’s best friend Rowdy (Jack McMullen). Jake’s isolation from the world is only tempered by his weekly trysts with Robyn (Anna Wilson-Smith).


The play charts a downward trajectory; Jake, for so long the carer, develops an incurable condition and has to be cared for. Throughout, we’re confronted with the difficulties of disability and desire: in the very first scene Jake, bathing Joey, notices that his son has an erection, and realises he now has to deal with adolescent sexuality. Eventually it leads to a masturbation scene involving two characters, the strangeness of which is entirely normalised within the emotional context. Wise puts in a strong performance, and I loved Jack McMullen as Joey’s best mate Rowdy, a boy with mild special needs whose dedication to his friend is both comic and heroic. The standout was Oliver Gomm as Joey, though. There will always be a debate over casting an able-bodied actor in the part, but this is a performance that will probably win awards, and is a beautifully-judged mix of tenderness and raging horn. Whereas in Closer love is narcissistic, in Kill Me Now it represents the little hope available. Take a tissue.


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Happy Days, Young Vic

Happy Days begins with a klaxon that makes the entire audience jump. On stage, buried up to her waist in sand, Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) awakes with a start. For the next two hours she tries to engage her partially visible husband Willie (David Beames) in conversation and gives a running commentary on her physical state, the contents of her bag (parasol, spectacles, revolver, music box, comb, toothbrush) and memories of her past, her optimism sounding increasingly misplaced. The second act is shorter and darker. Winnie is now buried up to her neck, and her fear and panic come to the surface.


Juliet Stevenson as Winnie

It’s a mountain of a part for an actress and as you’d expect, Stevenson turns in a fabulously nuanced performance. She never lapses into histrionics, but the suppressed hysteria behind the stiff upper lip is extraordinarily affecting.

Being buried in sand evokes memories of children’s games on the beach, but also a presage of death. It’s an arresting poetic image that in the theatre could seem heavily allegorical but as is classic Beckett, meaning is free-floating. There is no night and day, time is parcelled out between sleep and waking and punctuated by the earsplitting klaxons. This is not the lux aeterna longed for in Christian liturgy; the harsh sun beats down on Winnie and Willie and offers no respite.

We don’t know who Winnie is, or her husband. We have no idea how she got there. There is no causality at all. Context tunes in and out like a faltering radio; Winnie tells us of her past but those memories remain fragments.

After the play our party spent some time trying to figure out the different layers in the text. Is it about a dying marriage? Is it a post-apocalyptic world? Is Winnie’s attachment to her comb, toothbrush and music box a comment on the human desire for ritual in the face of a hostile universe? Is it one of Dante’s circles of hell? Is it about the futility of language to make sense of experience? Is it a music hall routine gone wrong?

The skill of this production (directed by Natalie Abrahami) and of Stevenson’s performance was that all those potential meanings co-exist. It would be a mistake to plump for one unitary reading, since it’s a play that resists all closure. This makes it sound like it could be a terrible couple of hours spent in the theatre, but Beckett done well is mesmerising. Though you might need a glass of wine afterwards.

Beckett wrote in both French and English: Happy Days was staged in New York in 1961 and in Paris in 1963 as Oh Les Beaux Jours. Apparently Beckett got the idea for that exact title from a Verlaine poem, Colloque Sentimental (1869). You can see why he was drawn to it. It’s a short, melancholy piece, where the narrating voice overhears the fragments of conversation of two unnamed figures in a park. One is constantly asking the other to recall their past, but the other’s terse replies are a refusal of love or a refusal of memory itself. They eventually fade out of earshot. (There’s an English translation here http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/15247/.)

Colloque Sentimental

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé

Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.

Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,

Et l’on entend à peine leurs paroles.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé

Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.

-Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?

– Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne?

Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom?

Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve? – Non.

Ah ! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible

Où nous joignions nos bouches ! – C’est possible.

– Qu’il était bleu, le ciel, et grand, l’espoir !

– L’espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.

Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,

Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.

– Paul Verlaine

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Twelfth Night, Apollo Theatre


As a student of seventeenth-century romance texts, I’m always going to love a shipwreck and bit of cross-dressing. So to the Apollo, where Mark Rylance’s much hoopla’d production of Twelfth Night transferred from the Globe at the end of last year. Since Jerusalem, Rylance has become a cult figure and the presence of Stephen Fry in the cast has guaranteed packed houses for both runs. Now I know you don’t go to the Globe for radical re-readings; you go there for the clarity of the story-telling and a bit more audience interaction than you’d get in subsidised theatre. But goodness, this was a mixed bag. (By the way, I’m not sure of the copyright status of the picture, if any IP lawyers have alighted upon this blog. I’m sure you’ll let me know..)

Rylance’s insistence in mimicking early modern performance practice with an all-male cast opens up wonderful possibilities, since every encounter contains within it multiple readings.  There was a marvellous bat squeak of sexual tension when Orsino (Liam Brennan), unconsciously starts touching Viola/Cesario (Johnny Flynn, very fine) and then checks himself. A cute moment, as it makes sense of Orsino’s abrupt turn towards Viola at the end of the play when he realises Olivia is taken.

So in this scene, were we seeing a man thinking he is falling for a man? Were we watching him sense the feminine beneath? Both? And of course, thanks to Rylance’s casting, we are inevitably aware of yet another layer, that underneath the feminine is a male actor. That playful oscillation of gender and its performativity is always what draws me back to Twelfth Night. That, and seeing how any production is going to make Sebastian and Viola indistinguishable – something that is usually a major let-down, but worked brilliantly in this production. And Rylance’s stuttering, gliding, imperious, desperate Olivia was a masterclass in nuance.

But. But. But. The comedy scenes were dire; Toby Belch (Colin Hurley) coarse but without charisma, Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd Pack ) the most wan piece of underplaying I’ve seen on stage for a long time. Never has festivity been so poorly executed.

Worst of all, Stephen Fry’s dour Malvolio squandered all the comic potential in the role. I’ve never seen the letter scene less funny. I couldn’t help comparing it to the Donmar West End production in 2008, where Derek Jacobi’s pomposity and self-delusion was shot through with middle-aged fragility, which in turn underpinned his willingness to believe Olivia was secretly in love with him.

In contrast, Fry’s characterisation was simply peevish, with his parting line (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”) more Victor Meldrew than William Prynne. This caused a hole in the rest of the production. There was no emotional logic for Belch’s plot since Malvolio just seemed a prissy irrelevance with little authority. So as a spectator I didn’t know why the revellers had it in for him, and by the end I didn’t care, and his imprisonment – which in the Donmar production had a dark and dying fall – just seemed like a rather lame prank.

I left the theatre quite cross at the standing ovation Fry got at the end for his celebrity. And then I re-read the reviews. The Guardian was the kindest, calling Fry’s Malvolio “grave, dignified and overbearing”. The Arts Desk called him “a supporting rather than scene-stealing comic turn” and The Independent described him as “reined-in”. Next time I’ll pay attention to the critics’ subtext. I should have taken the Time Out review most seriously: “colossally miscast”. Hear, hear.

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