Dangerous Liaisons and the Marquise de Merteuil

Dangerous Liaisons @ the Oxford Playhouse (Student production).

Yesterday, I saw Dangerous Liaisons at the Oxford Playhouse (on until 5th May). It was definitely an enjoyable production, well acted. I’ve not read the novel (by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos), so I can’t comment on the adaptation save for comparing it with the films the text has inspired also: Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Cruel Intentions (1999). Discussions follow, so I feel I should say now I’ve not watched these too recently, so feel free to correct me if I am misremembering.

What I rather liked about this production was its end: a quiet exposition conversation scene between the Marquise de Merteuil, Mesdames de Rosmonde and de Volanges. Discussing recent events of death and despair over tea, the Marquise is subdued, brokenhearted. That was far more affecting than the films, whose endings concentrated on comeuppance.

Not that I’m excusing her actions, but she was a compelling character, manipulating and powerful in her own right. Dangerous Liaisons (1988) has her fall from grace: shunned at the Opera by society. It’s striking: her hunting grounds where she was once queen have now wised up and will no longer engage her. For the time, I would imagine this would be quite the blow. Cruel Intentions (1999) does this in a younger, more modern way: an invasion of privacy (diary pages?) and extreme slut-shaming. Throughout the film we are made to compare the two women in the Vicomte de Valmont’s life: a vivid virgin/whore dichotomy. This is perhaps more apparent because of the setting: having them all roughly the same age rather than the original, where youth and inexperience are led, sought, manipulated and taught by their elders.

The relationship between Valmont and the Marquise has baggage older than some of these characters. Clearly they do love each other, in differing ways: enjoying each other’s company, sharing exploits and spurring each other on. They can talk as equals, or as equal as they can be given the male privilege one has and the other, strikingly, does not. Valmont’s ‘redemption’, as it were, of death, comes after realising (with help) that his feelings for his quarry were heartfelt. Of course, the Marquise has no such redemption, left alone without her closest confidante. (I’ll only get sidetracked if I start my ‘this is another example of where polyamory would sort things’ speech, so I won’t). Actually, that’s another thing about this production: the transition between player-Valmont and lover-Valmont was perhaps too rushed: it was difficult to tell at which point he had stopped play-acting and became more sincere (the occasional smirks to the audience in the initial stages were glorious: it’s clear Ziad Samaha was having great fun with the character). This did result in less pathos to his end. (Oh god, and don’t get me started on the sword fight that made myself and his nibs (both fencers) wince.)

Wrapping up as I realise I should have left a few minutes ago to catch a train:
Very good production: the ‘Bright Young Things’ era clothing/setting worked as a way of grounding the social mores without alienating those not fond of overtly costume dramas. The acting was surprisingly good, (the Marquise and Vicomte especially). The piano score for scene changes was nice too. Do see it if you’re free and about Oxford this week.

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