The Donmar Warehouse’s latest revival marks a welcome comeback for both Christopher Hampton’s celebrated 1985 play and Janet McTeer, who returns to this intimate Covent Garden venue after a 10-year break. But the big draw for many will be Dominic West who’s never been afraid of playing scoundrels.
Adapted from the 18th century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Hampton’s play is a deliciously sensual tale of sexual politics. It charts the cruel exploits of former lovers La Marquise de Merteuil (McTeer) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (West) who amuse themselves by cruelly seducing other members of the French aristocracy.
For Valmont, the hunt is the thing as he voraciously sets about the sexual conquest of seemingly unobtainable targets, with de Merteuil a willing accomplice who cynically relishes the manipulation even more than he does. Their previous liaison adds to the tension as they play each other like chess masters. This pair knows each other too well.
As part of a wager lain down by the Marquise, Valmont embarks on what will be his most difficult endeavour yet: the conquest of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy). His appetite is only whetted further by her passionate rejection of his advances.
Elaine Cassidy as Madame de Tourvel
Dominic West comes across as something of a cad, but at the same time invests Valmont with a certain charm — there is none of the reptilian predator about him that John Malkovich bought to the role in the Oscar-winning 1988 film. As a result, his Valmont often has us willing him to succeed in his conquests — he’s more of a Jack-the-lad than a cynical exploiter of the innocent.
McTeer is quite superb as de Merteuil. Beneath her elegance and poise, there is a bitter woman who craves the ruination of others like a drug and who uses her allure to draw in victims like moths to a flame. She conveys the innermost thought with an arch of the eyebrow or a subtle tilt of the head.
It all looks divine thanks to the faded grandeur of Tom Scutt’s candlelit set and the ravishing costumes, while the Donmar’s artistic director Josie Rourke adds many nice touches, including incidental music sung by the ensemble cast during scene changes.