Sydney Theatre Company Wharf 1, April 5. Until June 9
Sam Strong’s cool-toned production of Christopher Hampton’s play dispenses with the periwigs, corsetry and extravagant dresses of pre-revolutionary France.
Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving (pic by Brett Boardman)
The walls are stripped bare and rather than clattering parquet, designer Dale Ferguson puts down soft carpet, which deadens the sound of approaching footsteps while amplifying the sense that these people live in a world apart.
It’s here that the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont entertain themselves, keeping terminal ennui at bay with a decades-old game of sexual brinkmanship that neither dares lose.
For professional gamblers, there is no luck, just the manipulation of odds. Merteuil (Pamela Rabe) and Valmont (Hugo Weaving) maintain a similarly unsentimental view when it comes to matters of the heart. “Love is something you use, not something you fall into,” says the Marquise. “It’s like medicine, you use it as a lubricant to nature.”
Written in 1985, Hampton’s adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel of 1782 remains a scintillating dissection of two predators and Strong’s sparely elegant production serves it well, privileging the sophistication of its ideas over its capacity to titillate.
The careful regulation of tone results in a first half that seems worryingly arid at times, but that avoidance of emotion works to set the audience up for a vivid second act whose energy seems to mirror Valmont’s brief flowering as a man in love.
Unrecognisable for a moment under her feathery silver bob, Rabe plays Merteuil as a fearless and calculating player. Hers is a wintery sensuality, scarcely warmed even by her latest conquest, the spunky if clueless Chavelier Danceny (James Mackay).
By contrast, Weaving’s rakishly over-the-hill Valmont is a consummate portrayal of a shapeshifting seducer who callously wrecks the lives of the 15-year-old convent girl Cecile (Geraldine Hakewill, excellent in the role) and Mme. de Tourvel (a heart-rending Justine Clarke), whose faith in God and humanity Valmont is compelled to destroy.
Alan John’s score, which melds the Baroque with the ticking of contemporary beats, underpins a rivetingly tense climax that substitutes the script’s sword fight with, fittingly, a game of Russian roulette.
Hampton’s final stage direction suggests a fleeting glimpse of “the unmistakable silhouette of the guillotine”. Strong steers clear from making any connection between the callousness of these characters and the fate of the Ancien Régime.
Instead, in this production’s masterstroke, he fills the stage with the victims of this terrible game, one that leaves Merteuil, captured in a final soft pulse of light, pointlessly holding all the cards.