Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton's enduringly popular tale of deceit and betrayal among the higher classes in 18th century France, based on Laclos novel, was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985. Now, under Damian Cruden and Lucy Pitman-Wallace's joint direction, it's given another exhilarating outing at York Theatre Royal and it emerges in fantastic style.
Suzy Cooper plays La Marquise de Merteuil - a devious, deceitful widow who enjoys meddling in other people's lives as much as possible. When she sees that she can take advantage of her former lover, Le Vicomte de Valmont (Gareth Tudor Price), and use him to wreak havoc on her enemies, she begins a plot rolling with twisted schemes and backstabbing, which any modern day politician would be proud of.
Merteuil persuades Valmont to seduce a young virgin (Abby Ford) recently released from a convent in return for a night of passion between the two former lovers. He reluctantly agrees but states that his own plan - to lure the virtuous Mme De Volanges (Nicola Smythe) into his bed - must take precedence. With no care for other people's emotions or love, the pair set out and arrange what is necessary to allow them to take full advantage of their pawns in what becomes a giant chess game; but where there are usually pieces, people and emotions take over.
Valmont, however, does not count on the one and only thing which could ever stop his 'get a women quick scheme' flat in its tracks: love. He falls helplessly in love with one of his playing pieces and is no longer an impartial player of the game.
The story will, of course, be familiar to fans of the acclaimed 1988 film version Dangerous Liaisons (which starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer) or even the recent teeny-bopper adaptation Cruel Intentions. But familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt in this instance.
The co-directors' vision is successfully rendered by a talented cast, with the opulence of the era well-captured by the efforts of designer Dawn Allsop. Special mention must go, too, to fight director Richard Ryan for his management of these complicated sequences.
But I must save my highest praise for Hampton's script, which is bearing up extraordinarily well into the 21st century. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a rich, dark and highly satisfying play, filled with unexpected events, complicated plots and humour. It will captivate even the most jaded of theatregoers.
- John Pybus