Friday, August 6, 2010

(No.106) Dangerous Liaisons

On the eve of the French revolution, not long before the guillotine overtook the ancien regime, a French artillery officer named Choderlos de Laclos wrote a novel called Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). Two hundred years later the British playwright Christopher Hampton adapted the Laclos novel into a successful play and then into an Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1988 movie Dangerous Liaisons.

The Hampton play is one of the productions at this season's Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Ontario. Pat and I saw Dangerous Liaisons recently.

At the core of the play is the relationship as well as a sort of competition between le Vicomte de Valmont (played by Tom McCamus) and la Marquise de Merteuil (Seana McKenna) involving the sexual conquests with which each becomes involved.

To avenge herself on a lover who deserted her Merteuil asks Valmont to seduce the man's fiancee. Valmont is already preoccupied with the seduction of a respectable married woman but agrees to Merteuil's request provided that she renews their sexual relationship if his 'assigned' seduction is successful.

That plot precis may make the play sound rather squalid. It isn't. Dangerous Liaisons is not a descent by Stratford into soft core porn but rather the presentation of a rather sophisticated drama with many laugh lines. Hampton has supplied it generously with epigrammatic lines in the style of Oscar Wilde like "She couldn't have hated him more if they had been married ten years"; "one does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat"; "excess is something you reserve for people you are about to leave"; and "like most intellectuals he's intensely stupid".

Dangerous Liaisons does present special challenges of design and staging on a thrust stage that works well with what has become a traditional approach to staging Shakespearean plays. However these challenges are met successfully by director Ethan McSweeney and designer Santo Loquasto. The latter's costume designs are superb and enrich the production's look.

The play's setting is various salons and bedrooms in and around Paris. Sight lines to the actors across the thrust stage remain unobscured through the use, for example, of transparent acrylic period style chairs. Beds on sliding bases are pushed onto and out of the stage by footman, often with the actors in bed. Servants smoothly remove or place pieces of furniture.

The cast is strong overall. The 36 year Stratford Festival veteran Martha Henry is a pleasure to watch in a smaller part as Madame de Rosemonde. The play's best roles and, unsurprisingly, its strongest performances come from McCamus as Valmont and McKenna as Merteuil. Indeed McCamus' performance approaches the superb.

This Stratford production of Dangerous Liaisons is enjoyable and a worthwhile experience for the play goer. I am not a fan of 'star' ratings of plays or movies but I admit they are sometimes an appealing bit of critical shorthand.

Pat and I agree on a 'rating' of 4 out of 5 stars for Dangerous Liaisons.


"Dangerous Liaisons" continues at the Stratford Festival through Oct.30, 2010. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 1-800-567-1600.


Alastair Rickard