A role as meaty as the arch seducer Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses doesn’t come up all that often. When it does, you grab it.
Hugo Weaving considers himself fortunate to have performed it once, in Richard Cottrell’s production for Nimrod Theatre in 1987 at the Seymour Centre. To get a second crack at it is lucky indeed. The only problem is, says Weaving, you don’t get to chose when you play it.
“I was much too young, really, first time around,” says Weaving. “I was 27. Now I feel like I’m too old.”
Weaving, 51, imagines Valmont to be about 40. “Over the hill,” he says, a mite ruefully. “But back then, I was just too young to feel like a man who’s become bored with himself. He feels there must be something more to life. At 27, I could understand that intellectually but I couldn’t feel like that.”
Revisiting the role in the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production, Weaving recognises Valmont as a man who has arrived at a point in his life where he knows something must change.
“He probably – unconsciously – would like to be in love with someone and just settle down and live in the country. But he would never admit that,” he says. “He would hate to lose his reputation as the great seducer, the great lover of all women, and so he’s in a bind, in a trap of his own making.”
There’s clearly something of the actor himself in his Valmont. In between gigs, Weaving prefers to spend his time out of the spotlight on his rural property on the Williams River near Dungog, three hours north of Sydney.
“There have been times when I felt like I would love to just stop [acting] and do something else. But that just causes me to think, well, what would I do?’ I love being up on the property planting trees and working the land. Sometimes I think I could very happily do that but if I seriously decided to chuck it all in, I think I would get very … I would miss something, a lot.”
Whatever reservations Weaving has about his first performance as the aristocratic seducer at the centre of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play, they weren’t shared by the critics at the time. The Herald’s H.G. Kippax wrote of Weaving: “Here is command, relish and panache, all combining to show us intellect without scruple, going into action with the deadly precision of a tiger.”
Weaving is thinking of Valmont in less carnivorous terms these days.
“He’s more like a river than some kind of animal,” says Weaving. “There’s a fluidity about Valmont, an ability to get past whatever obstacles are in his way. If there’s suddenly a lot of rocks put in his path, he will flow over and around them. He has a desire not to hurry; to enjoy. He doesn’t want to conquer a woman; he wants her to come to him. There are times when that river will become very lazy and meandering and other times when it feels like it’s rushing headlong and the other person is caught up in this, you know, irresistible power of his.”
The STC’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which opens on Thursday, differs too, in that its director Sam Strong, has been working on a more contemporary look and feel.
It’s not set in 1782, when Choderlos de Laclos wrote the original novel, or in an identifiable present, explains Weaving. “It’s a timeless now, if you like, though you get a sense of elegance and wealth – European wealth, old money, I suppose – in the set and costumes.”
One of the challenges in rehearsal has been finding a way to address the tone of Hampton’s script.
“The way in which Valmont seduces in 1782 and the way he would do it now, has to be very different,” explains Weaving. “You have to play it less front-on. I don’t think the passionate professions of love that Hampton’s written – like ‘falling to his knees and grasping her hand and kissing her hand’, which puts you into corset land a bit – can work today. There are at least three women in the play he’s seducing and they all require a different sort of energy and a different sort of attack.”
Les Liaisons Dangereuses opens April 5, Sydney Theatre Company Wharf 1 and plays until June 9, 2012.