A WHIFF OF SULPHUR UNDER THE BROCADE…
There are certainly crinolines, but Quality Street it ain’t. How smart of Josie Rourke to offer adults, worn down by fairylights and panto duties, a tart, sour and thrillingly unwholesome morsel. It is Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of a 1782 shocker, an epistolary novel of high society and low sex by Choderlos de Laclos, his only work. As is the Donmar habit, it is faultlessly and unfussedly set: characters stride diagonally across the space moving props as scenes change, and until the final cruel dowsing of flames and merciless daylight all the intrigue happens below flickering real candelabras, amid Louis XV chaises-longues and big 18c landscape paintings (plus one small canvas, briefly and chillingly carried before her belly by a particular character).
Despite the costumes, Rourke wisely directs her cast without ‘period’ stiffness, so they spring into appalling, modern life: I did wonder whether the ideas of sexual corruption and détournement de jeunesse could still work in our age of commonplace sexual exchange, but the whiff of sulphur is still there all right. Particularly in Janet McTeer’s smoothly alarming performance as the prime conspiratrice: a voice like poisoned velvet, eyes glowing with an elegant malicious despair which deepens as the more violent second Act develops. Dominic West is Valmont, convincingly charming with an edge of savagery: the classic bad-boy who makes women think they can change him, and whose moral emptiness can sometimes ring like a summoning bell.
For those who never saw the various film adaptations (the classic Vadim with Jeanne Moreau, the Frears one with Glenn Close which was based on this play) the plot is simply, arrestingly damnable. At its heart former lovers Valmont and Mme Merteuil, bored and discontented, play sexual games with innocents. He wants to bed the famously chaste and married Mme de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy, whose resistance and succumbing are both superb). To Valmont, though, it will only be truly satisfying if by doing it she feels she is betraying her principles rather than discarding them. Sulphur? Oh yes.
At the same time Merteuil has challenged him to take the virginity of her friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter Cecile, fresh out of a convent, to spite the girl’s intended husband. Since Cecile herself fancies the music-master, Valmont finds it easy to cast himself as a trusty messenger and get hold of her bedroom key “to deliver letters”. The scene where he overcomes the frightened teenager with blackmail and a hand thrust up her nightie is genuinely, nastily uncomfortable (young Morfydd Clark as Cecile plays it with awful sincerity). Worse is the faux-maternal satisfaction of Merteuil telling the shocked girl that it’s all good “education”, and Valmont’s laughing boast that he has trained the child to do “services one would hesitate to ask of a professional”. Then just as you think he is going to get his comeuppance by finally falling in love with the surrendered Mme de Tourvel, the fatal dominance of Merteuil, even more powerful in her dissolution, takes revenge on them all.
The alarming thing, well served by fine performances, is the psychological acuteness of Laclos and an underlying sense almost of feminism: outrage at the inequality of sexual power in that society and the consequently nasty tactics women may adopt to even it out. There are comic moments – not least Valmont writing an earnest seducing letter to Mme T, using a courtesan’s bare bum as a desk as she sprawls on the harpsichord. But nobody, innocent or not, ends well. Brrrr!
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Live cinema transmission http://www.ntlive.com on 28 Jan.