Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Gate Theatre

Putting on a modern stage adaptation of an eighteenth-century novel, also made into a film, is high-risk strategy, made more intense by the epistolary style of Choderlos Laclos’ original, an approach to fiction made famous by the English novelist, Samuel Richardson. He gets a credit line in the text. The story, built around secondary emotions, adds to the difficulty of winning over an audience. The events are neither nice nor wholesome. The ending is bitter; there is no natural hubris or nemesis, nor does eroticicism arise from love or lead to it. The characters are either foolish or vicious. They lack depth and humour. Though Christopher Hampton’s play is accomplished and skilful, quite a lot is lacking.

The Gate production is well-wrought, the settings elegant, the cast beautifully dressed and coiffeured. Superficially balanced and evenly-paced, there is a disparity between the natural sensitivity of Nick Dunning’s acting of one of the two leading roles, that of the Vicomte de Valmont, and his partner in crime, La Marquise de Merteuil, played with less assurance by Fiona Bell. Her wickedness is a cloak worn with relentless determination, even in the way she handles her ‘Toy Boy’, Chevalier Danceny, played woodenly by Paul Reid.

The depth of character needed in less central parts, such as Susan Fitzgerald’s witless mother, Madame de Volange, and her daughter, Cecile, played with equal gullibility by Jane McGrath, fails to emerge. There is a failure to connect, either through tedium, or through rushed erotic passages – clumsy stepping stones to seduction.

On one character the author deposits virtue, like the burden on Christian’s back in A Pilgrim’s Progress. This is La Présidente de Tourvel, played with good judgment by Catherine Walker. Unfortunately, fated to give her heart away under intense and dishonest pressure from the play’s villain, Dunning’s Valmont, she does so in sequences of emotional change that are slow and then rushed. From despising, to loving, to being despised, is all too much for her and for the audience. I advise a return to the novel.