The Donmar Warehouse has sometimes been accused of being a "court theatre" - a theatre not for the masses, but for a cozy coterie of exclusive insiders who, as in the theatres at ancient European palaces,had exclusive access to them. With a seating capacity of just 251, it can't possibly get everyone in, but it has lately made attempts to open itself up to a wider audience — seats aren't all sold before the show even opens, but a nightly bank of front row tickets in the stalls and circle are held back for sale, at just £10, for every performance, put on sale just two weeks ahead of the week they're being sold for. Furthermore, its glorious new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses will be broadcast live to over 600 UK cinemas on January 28 as part of NT Live.
But Christopher Hampton's play, first premiered in 1985 by the RSC before transferring to the West End and Broadway, is in many ways the perfect court play. It reveals a closed world of court aristocrats, none of whom appear to work, and therefore have too much time on their hands to simply behave badly towards each other. In fact, as you watch it with an alternately intrigued and appalled fascination, you might be happy that you're not a member of this particular court, even as you congratulate yourself for being part of the court invited to watch it.
Based on Laclos's epistolary 1782 novel, it portrays the sinister games of romance, sex and deceit being played out by former partners the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West) and the Marquis de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), who have never fully resolved their own relationship and meanwhile toy with others as a kind of entertainment for each other that also provides a kind of torture by jealousy for each other as well. Meanwhile, they wreck havoc with the emotional and sexual lives of others.
It's an ugly, uncomfortable life of dishonest feelings; Valmont and Merteuil would, in modern times, be dubbed sex addicts, and I could happily recommend a 12-step programme for them to help them understand their damaging patterns of addictive sexual behaviour. Their 8th step — making a list of all the people they've harmed — would include most of the other characters in this play; and I wonder how the 9th step would play out, when they have to make directs amends to those they've harmed.
As spectator sport, it is grim but gripping to watch; and in Josie Rourke's absolutely sumptuous production, frequently lit by candlelight, it variously glows and glowers. McTeer — her scrunched-up bosom providing a performance of its own with every breath she takes or exhales — and West are ideal sparring partners. As the women he draws into his dark web, Mortydd Clark and Elaine Cassidy are superb, as is Edward Holcroft as the man she toys with.
This beautifully cast and designed evening is another feather in the Donmar's cap, and surely another candidate for a West End transfer.
"Even if Josie Rourke’s revival cannot totally trump memories of the original 1985 production, or indeed the 1988 movie, it is still an evening to richly savour."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is a handsome period staging, in a crumbled chateau interior, opulent with candle-chandeliers, chaise-longues, even a harpiscord – dust-sheets supplying an eerie sense of a ghost-like reprise of long-dead deeds."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Dominic West proves superb and Janet McTeer makes a triumphant return to the West End in this revival of Christopher Hampton’s witty play."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard