September 24, 2011
STC’s new season will show some classics with a modern twist, writes Wendy Frew.
The final scene in Stephen Frears’s 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons is hard to forget. In 18th-century France, the Marquise de Merteuil(Glenn Close) and her former lover Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) ease their boredom by playing sexual games at other people’s expense. By the film’s end, Valmont and one of the women he has cynically seduced are dead and the manipulative Marquise’s faç¸ade of moral righteousness is exposed. As she enters her box at the opera house, a hush falls on the theatre and all eyes turn to her. Someone starts to boo; soon, everyone is cat-calling and stamping in scorn.
Back in her rooms, crushed, she sits facing her mirror, slowly removing the last vestiges of her power and status – jewels, wig, powder – her face a mess of tears and smudged make-up. She has lost everything.
The film was based on Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic directors, Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, have chosen this powerful story of lust, seduction and wickedness as the anchor for next season.
The wigs and powder have been ditched and Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving are exciting choices for the lead roles. But with the film likely to be front of mind for many, the STC’s task will be to deliver a production so good – or so different from what the audience expects – that it is judged on its own merits rather than in comparison with the film.
Staging works people know and love is always a challenge. Audiences can be stubbornly loyal to the first version of a film or stage production they see. In their fourth program at the STC, Upton and Blanchett are facing that challenge several times, also staging George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (perhaps best remembered as the 1964 screen version of the musical My Fair Lady) and Under Milk Wood. An early recording and a film version of Dylan Thomas’s radio play are indelibly stamped with the dulcet tones of Richard Burton.
But each work has a special allure for the duo. In the case of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it is what Blanchett describes as the deliciously wicked wit and repartee of the two leads, and the sexual politics at the heart of the story, which she says is as relevant now as when the original novel was written by Choderlos de Laclos in 1782.
”It won’t be totally in period setting but there will be references to the time it is set,” Blanchett says. ”It is a very witty, sharp, biting play.”
Pygmalion also plays with gender and power and the power of words. Upton and Blanchett decided to ”shake the dust” off the Bernard Shaw work and focus less on the British class aspects and more on the power relations, especially that of an older man and a younger woman.
”It’s funny, it’s sexually charged … language is power and that is at the heart of this play,” Blanchett says. ”There is a lot in the season about identity, who we are, who we think we are, and how we act.”
It also provided a vehicle to showcase the talent of Jessica Marais, a young actress whose ”fragility and strength” caught their attention in 2008 in a Melbourne production of Patrick White’s A Season at Sarsaparilla, before Marais became a household name in the TV series Packed to the Rafters.
Perhaps the riskiest choice in the season, Under Milk Wood, which will be directed by Upton, has long been on his and Blanchett’s list of ”must-do” plays. When Upton spoke to the Herald, the production was still a work in progress.
”It is a radio play so we won’t be trying to stage everything, and we won’t necessarily aim for Welsh accents, but rather we want to let the rhythm of the poetry set the pace and dictate the voices,” Upton says, adding that he wants to retain the dream-like quality of Under Milk Wood, in which an all-seeing narrator (Jack Thompson) invites the audience to listen to the dreams and thoughts of the townspeople in an imaginary Welsh fishing village.
Thompson was one of several actors Blanchett and Upton thought were vital to the success of some of their program choices. Bille Brown, as Bruscon, ”a theatrical actor playing a theatrical monster” in Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard’s The Histrionic, was another, along with Rabe and Weaving in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
The season includes works the STC directors had been thinking of doing for some time, as well as some almost last-minute inclusions. The program lacks the star line-ups of last year’s Uncle Vanya and the thematic pull of classic American drama that anchored last year’s season. But the mix of old and new (there are four new Australian works and two new Australian adaptations), collaborations and cross-over works such as physical theatre company Force Majeure’s Never Did Me Any Harm and the romantic comedy with songs, Midsummer, should ensure the 2012 season will be one to talk about.