Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

Les Liaisons dangereuses is the first epistolary novel ever written in France. It dates from the end of the 18th Century, several years before the taking of the Bastille in 1789 which marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Apart from announcing the moral disintegration of a society soon to be  physically removed  by the classes that suffered under the aristocracy, which is the milieu the author shows us.  Choderlos de Laclos’ work also illustrates, in a certain way, a critique of the theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher who prefigured the French romantic movement by teaching that one should follow one’s own nature.

This is exactly what the couple Valmont-Merteuil do, taking revenge on their enemies by inflicting humiliation and sexual conquest on those they want to punish for a multitude of reasons.  Vengeance,which can have the appearance of pleasure,  is therefore the primary motivation of this  couple and it is also the cause of their own downfall.   Of course Valmont breaks the rules of their  relationship by falling in love with one of his victims and Merteuil, in spite of herself is so enraged by jealousy that she leads Valmont to his destruction, and eventually her own.  The couple is caught up in its own plotting and  Laclos reserves a much more horrible ending for La Merteuil than does Christopher Hampton. In  the novel she dies a miserable death, horribly disfigured by small pox, before the revolutionaries even get the chance to chop off her head! I must say that Hampton is much more lenient with her and as the leading force in this version of the story, she really does correspond to one of the greatest  portraits of  feminine power and  cruelty  that one can find in French literature.

The play by Hampton is not an adaptation of the novel, it is only  inspired by it   but we could see  that Hampton captured most meticulously the subtle emotional manipulation and psychological games that were the essence of this very refined dialogue, inspired  by Laclos’ prose and the intrigues and confessions found in the letters  that are the basis of the book.  On the other hand, the play is a succession of monologues and long explanations of feelings that are laced with very witty fragments of “libertinage”,  cynical statements about the nature of human relations, especially on the part of Valmont,  cruel plotting by this unbelievably wicked couple. On the other hand there is the naive Mme Volanges and her  innocent little daughter Cécile who has just left the convent.  The victims are well defined prepared for the "kill". Cécile is played by a delightful Sara Duplancic who made her transformation into a less than naive young lady, sparkling and quite convincing!

The tone is wicked, angry, passionate, playful, cruel, and desperate. The range of emotions  is operatic, the stances and body language of  actor John Muggleton as Valmont come straight out of the portraits of the period and  director Geoff Gruson has captured the movement of all these highly refined relationships and this psychological toying throughout.

First let me say that this is a  visually luscious production set in the pre-revolutionary period of France.  Emily Sousanna’s costumes were beautiful and exuded aristocratic luxury, Sondra Rogers’s hairdos and make-up also enhanced the characters appearance.  Andrew Hamlin’s set design was elegant, simple and classical enough so that a simple door way or a window with its lush velvet curtains and bits of well placed period furniture could all adapt easily to any period that was expected of them.  The visual designers  certainly had an excellent eye for the set and the period landscape suggested by  the play and the multiple set changes went very smoothly and rapidly.

John Muggleton and Venetia Lawless made an excellent couple. Each of them imposed  his and her  own space and  individual presence in this relationship, leaving us with the sense of a  constant duel, a constant clash of strong wills.  Mme Lawless was  heartless, and devoid of emotion, until she became jealous in spite of herself and the first moments when she captures the attraction between Tourvel and Valmont were beautifully subtle.   This was an almost  flawless performance in as much as one could expect from a nonprofessional production. John Muggleton as Valmont, Venetia Lawless as Mme de Merteuil

Photo: Alan Dean

Muggleton was the only one who really captured a sense of period style  as he draped himself over the little sofas and chairs, seduced Cécile and twisted himself into Mme de Tourvel’s heart. His Valmont became a very self assured and passionate individual who  should perhaps have a word with his tailor one of these days to try to tighten his pants. Im sure there would be no problem.

I did feel however, that what was lacking was any kind of sexual heat in this show. Obviously the playful seduction of fifteen-year- old Cécile  could not have been anything else and that worked very well, but there was still a suppressed  passion between La Merteuil and Valmont that we never feel at all. Nor did I feel that Mme de Tourvel, (Heather Archibald) was sincere about her passion for Valmont. She never  betrayed the torment and conflict that was raging within her.  …. A very difficult role I admit. However, it worked well finally because Muggleton had enough energy for them all and he carried those scenes.


It was a surprisingly satisfying production given the special nature of the play and the audience reacted in a most joyous way, as if they had been waiting for this bit of spice for a long long time. !!

One comment however, PLEASE remove that music. It has nothing to do with a play that is supposed to be a period piece and even though there are nods and winks at the 20th century, the wailings of Adele (whom I love by the way) and the growling of Bowie (who is an icon in his own right) do not belong in that context. It was so terribly intrusive it broke  the atmosphere each  time they changed a scene.

Ottawa, Alvina Ruprecht

June 7, 2012