Despite being written and set in a period rather distant from our own, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has the ability to grip and shock in a way Gossip Girl could only dream of.
The plot is a little twisted. It begins with two seasoned courtesans, ex-lovers, limping slightly from their wounds but nevertheless on top. Forming an unholy alliance, they execute a plan for revenge involving clueless innocents, merciless seduction and a generous dose of cunning. Many will already be clued in thanks to one particular prior adaptation, Cruel Intentions. Despite the spoilers, there are a few key twists that ensure STC’s production stays fresh.
Director Sam Strong brings the same deft touch he lent to The Boys, ensuring that even the most detestable characters come across as… well, quite likable. Hugo Weaving has no small hand in this. While Valmont is rotten to the core, his charm is palpable; it oozes from the stage in thick waves. Other characters are a little less believable. Justine Clarke as Madame de Tourvel struggles to bring together ‘chaste, yet desirable, beauty’ with ‘woman in the throes of love’ — though to be fair, this is a complex request. Pamela Rabe is extraordinary as the spider at the centre of this web of intrigue, the Marquise de Merteuil. Excruciatingly intelligent and hard as diamond, she makes us sympathise with her womanly plight while never quite believing her reasons.
Strong was clearly determined to pull this play into the present, or at least into a vaguely contemporary setting. Happily, this doesn’t mean throwing polished, worldly glamour out of the window. Some of the costuming choices (by Mel Page) are reminiscent of popular style blogs (Satorialist, anyone?), yet they succeed in operating as tinted insights into character inclination rather than as Fantastic Man-contrived get ups. Dale Ferguson’s set is a clever maze of doors and passages, which is almost as semiotically useful as it is practical. The design seconds the assertion of the direction: playfully self-aware yet utterly believable.
All in all, Liaisons is a production singularly suited to STC: innovative without being too much of a stretch; exciting and cheeky while remaining resolutely sophisticated. This bodes good things for the company’s future direction.