It’s easy enough to comment on the shows that knocked your socks off or the ones you wasted your time on. What’s harder are the ones in the middle, like this year’s production of Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The acting is all right, sometimes very good, and the story keeps your attention, in a morbid sort of way. But if we hadn’t seen it . . . ? No great loss.
Dangerous Liaisons is a tale of two rotten people — the Vicomte de Valmont (Tom McCamus) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Seana McKenna) — behaving very badly. It’s set in the aristocratic salons of decadent Paris around 1785. To start off the nastiness, the Marquise challenges Valmont, a rake and an old flame, to debauch Cécile (Bethany Jillard), a naïve virgin fresh out of convent school; if he does, the Marquise will reward him with sex. Valmont takes up the challenge but becomes sidetracked with a personal project, which is to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Sara Topham), a pious and unusually virtuous young wife. In between times, Valmont spends time in bed with a voluptuous courtesan (Martha Farrell).
In short, the plot is not unlike that of a soft-core porn movie, with a lead “actor” who beds one woman after another. The play has other stereotypical elements of the genre as well, including a religious young woman who must be liberated from her inhibitions and a hint of same-sex attraction (the Marquise tells Valmont that she’d thought of seducing Cécile herself). And a bit of rough stuff; Cécile does not surrender her body to Valmont voluntarily (but she likes it well itself that in short order she turns into a nymphomaniac). There are simulated sex acts (under the covers; there’s no nudity), and the double entendres never stop. The play is so unrelenting in its focus on sex that its prurient interest is gone by the second act — though you keep watching, much as as you might keep eating candies long after you’ve had enough.
Of course, this play isn’t porn; it’s about the misuse of sex in the service of selfishness — in a sense, a morality play. The lives of these libertines revolve around sex, but not for its own sake; they use it to bolster their egos, to punish enemies, and to move up the social ladder. If they enjoy sex, it’s only incidental to their power games, which, in the end, destroy them.
But the seductions become, frankly, tiresome. Presumably the playwright intended that dramatic tension would rise as the characters become increasingly tangled in their own deadly webs. That just didn’t happen for us.
Tom McCamus is convincing as the decadent French aristocrat Valmont, who lies shamelessly to women and destroys their lives merely to enhance his reputation for “impossible” sexual conquests. Some of his lines, and those of Seana McKenna as the Marquise, remind you of Oscar Wilde’s cynical aphorisms, but they’re much darker.
We hadn’t been aware that playwright Christopher Hampton’s resume includes the book for Sunset Boulevard, one of the few musicals of the last 30 years that Emsworth has really cared for.