As a metaphor for the state of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre under the Artistic Direction of Josie Rourke, her production of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 masterpiece, Les Liasions Dangereuses, now playing until 13 February, could not be more apt. The production looks good, is attractive in a number of ways, utilizes excellent talent but, ultimately, there is a lack of incisive direction with the result that the end product does not dazzle as it should.

Hampton’s play is a scintillating adaptation of another masterpiece: Pierre-Ambroise-Franҫois Choderlos’ epistolary novel about the sexual attraction, games and maneuverings of two aristocratic French dignitaries, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, in the closing years of the entitled French monarchy. The novel tells a spirited and sexually-charged story, mainly through letters penned by the two main protagonists, which was ahead of its time in many ways, especially in its treatment of, and the voice it gave to, women. Hampton’s fizzing, sparkling dialogue captures the essential vivacity and alarming viciousness of Choderlos’ characters who, with almost military precision (Choderlos was a career soldier), plot sexual assaults on unsuspecting victims.

The Marquise and the Vicomte were once lovers and each retains a fascination for the other. Although they have other conquests, both still, at a fundamental level, yearn for the time they spent together. Both gain exquisite pleasure from planning sexual conquests of, usually, fragile or weak opponents, victims or relatives/friends/partners of people upon whom one or both want to wreak vengeance. Gleefully, they together lay complicated traps for their prey and seem never happier than when plotting and planning.

But as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that neither may be truly honest with the other. Merteuil, who thinks cruelty is delicious, is an eloquent and passionate feminist: she has created a brittle, exacting and calculating exterior to permit her to survive a world where everything is stacked in favour of the male of the species; a world where denouncing a man for his faults leads only to an enhancement of his prestige, but a mere aside from a privileged man might ruin a woman permanently. Realizing she cannot win in such an environment except through clever cruelty, she ensures that sex takes away trophies or prestige, without staining her reputation.

She enlists Valmont to seduce other women, where the women in question, having been seduced, will be ruined or spoilt so that a man’s enjoyment or expectation of that woman will be foiled. In her mind, the victim gets great sex with Valmont and her enemy, the male associated with the victim, gets a surprise which can never be attributed to her. For his part, Valmont gets the chance to indulge his permanent exultation in the pleasures of female flesh.

Both predators smile and manipulate with zeal until Valmont makes the mistake of truly falling in love with one of his victims. Then, quite disturbingly, their joint worlds shudder and shake, the foundations smashed forever, and their long liaison ends – badly. When it is over, several lives are shattered, one, probably two, are lost.

There is more than a passing allusion to the hedonistic French aristocracy, and its eventual fate, in this tale of Merteuil and Valmont. Indeed, Hampton’s play calls for a specific lighting effect at the end – a shadow of the Guillotine – to leave a startling impression. (In fact, the French Revolution started about eight years after Choderlos wrote his great novel).

Rourke’s production is very heavy-handed about the decaying, crumbling, almost lost world in which the sexual game-playing occurs. Mark Henderson’s lighting is atmospheric and ethereal, lush, either warm or cold depending on where the action is located. Tom Scutt’s design is sumptuous in many respects, with an array of superb costumes and decadent furnishings, but there is a sense of both incompleteness and finality about everything. Furniture and paintings are covered in transparent sheeting when the play starts; the paintings are assembled along the wall, as if they have been taken down as part of an abandonment or lock-down. Between scenes there is some classical music and singing, moody almost ghostly music from Michael Bruce, which underlines the “past world” effect of the entire design. All of this substitutes, poorly, for the shock effect of the Hampton-specified shadow of the Guillotine.

The result is almost soporific. All of the jealousy-and-rage fuelled sexual shenanigans occur in this misty, languid and shrouded energy and, as a direct result, cannot sparkle or zing as they otherwise might. Yes, there is some benefit in Rourke’s approach (the image of Morfydd Clark’s Cécile being uncovered like a richly decorated chaise longue and thereby being equated to a valuable object, for instance) but the loss of a sense of immediacy, of involving and ongoing frisson, of real danger, in the action is not worth the effort. The conceit of the production, as beautiful as Scutt’s work is, goes against the inherent drive of Hampton’s play. Being beautiful is not the same as being sexy – and Les Liaisons Dangereuses should absolutely be sexy.

While focused on sex, Rourke’s production is not sexy. Casting does not assist.

Janet McTeer is a gorgeous, compelling and magnificent actor. But the role of Merteuil is but one half of a double act; success or failure depends almost entirely on the chemistry with the actor playing Valmont, here Dominic West. While it is not true that there is no chemistry between the pair, there is certainly nothing like the chemistry there needs to be. Scenes between them should sizzle, spark, seduce. The sense of their attraction to each other, their mutual dependence upon each other for diversion and carnal machinations should be tangible, thick in the air, like heady perfume. But Rourke has not drawn this sense from her leads.

Distractingly, on more than one occasion, both McTeer and West stumbled with the dialogue. Hampton’s lines need the trippingly on the tongue approach; the words need to be shot like jewelled bullets, wrapped in cadences and rhythms which excite and entice. Far too often, there was a sense of restraint in the delivery akin to the way the heavily corseted frames of the female actors were restrained, although unlike the collected décolletages here, this did not lead to any kind of cheeky popping. With McTeer, it did not seem that she had truly made the speeches her own. The ghost of Lindsay Duncan wafted through the delivery of many phrases, surprisingly. When McTeer was able to shape the delivery to suit her own formidable and remarkable talents – especially when she is railing against male hideousness and entitlement – she was perfect. With a better suited Vicomte, and allowed to entirely make the part her own, she would be utterly remarkable.

But the scenes between McTeer and West are unaccountably flat. West seems uncomfortable in the role for much of the time, although he is liveliest when the statuesque and divine McTeer is not sharing the stage with him. His finest hour comes in his final scene with Edward Holcroft’s near perfect Danceny although he does good work too with Clark – his “seduction” (rape, really) of Cécile is finely done – and Elaine Cassidy’s Madame de Tourvel. Occasionally, the thought occurs that West might be intimidated by McTeer’s ability.

Whatever the reason, West’s Vicomte is not the prowling, amoral, viscerally sexual animal he should be. Sexual desire and appetite should pump through Valmont’s veins, be the breath which propels him. Like a leaping, graceful, unstoppable, rutting gazelle, Valmont should burst with rapacious, libidinous excess. West’s version of the character is languid and charming – but there is not enough sizzle in his performance and he does not match McTeer’s Marquise sufficiently for the play to shine as it might.

Cassidy’s Tourvel, however, is splendid in every respect. Quite beautiful, angelic in delivery and graceful beyond measure, Cassidy shows the entire destruction of her virtuous character. Wary, defiant, uncertain, submissive, committed, destabilized, crushed – every step of the journey the character undertakes is precisely, perfectly done. At the virtuous end of her spectrum, Cassidy makes the Madame slightly irritating; later, she is warmer and utterly lovable, as the tentacles of Merteuil’s plan choke her. Her devastation at Valmont’s final abandonment of her is harrowing.

Danceny is a slight role, but Holcroft brings him to life with a compelling ease. He plays the fatuous, dopey fop well, draining the character of any interest, but then layers in levels of surprise and interest as he becomes entwined with Merteuil despite his avowed devotion to Cécile. His scenes with McTeer, which should be languid and softly conspiratorial, are precisely right and he brings to the climactic duel a sense of duty and honour which is in stark contrast to Valmont’s earlier actions. It is almost as if Danceny’s rectitude unearths the hidden honour in Valmont who admits his true feelings for Tourvel. Richard Ryan’s masterly and nimble rapier duel is well handled by Holcroft (who looks born to the period and as far a cry from London Spy as might be imagined).

There is excellent support from Una Stubbs who is impeccable as the benign Madame de Rosemonde. Artistocratic, dignified, but missing absolutely nothing, Stubbs enchants as a wily old bird full of precise propriety. Adjoa Andon is equally delightful as the card playing Madame de Volanges, Cécile’s protective and gossipy mother, and Jennifer Saayeng brings to the role of Émile, Valmont’s other other lover, the kind of reckless abandonment and relishing of lustful indulgence that ought be a hallmark of Valmont (but isn’t).

As Valmont’s trusted servant/aide, Azolan, Theo Barklem-Biggs might be in a different play in some ways. His approach and accent seem out of place but that is more down to Rourke than him. The execution of what is asked of him is not the issue; it’s the concept. Alison Arnopp’s watchful maid, Julie, is eloquent in silence.

By permitting the action and dialogue to move so relatively slowly and in a haze of times past, Rourke robs Hampton’s play of its best and giddiest highs: when the cavalier Valmont realizes he has fallen in love with Tourvel, while simultaneously providing sex education lessons to the deflowered Cécile, it should be as if a train collided with a mountain. But here, the moment comes almost as a whimper, not a seismic shift in the Merteuil/Valmont world. McTeer is the one who suffers most from the lack of firm directorial discipline, but, equally, she is the one who rises most above it, fashioning a credible, enjoyable turn despite serious, almost suffocating, obstacles.

But, as Valmont might have said, that was “beyond her control” and entirely in Rourke’s hands.

Three stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.