The cast of Les Liaisons Dangereuses | Wharf 1 (Pic: Brett Boardman)

Les Liaisons Dangereuses will be known, first and foremost, almost inevitably to most of us, through Stephen Frears’ lavishly indulgent film adapted from Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play. The film brought actors Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer to (even greater) prominence. Hampton, of course, had taken over 200 years to adapt Choderlos De Laclos’ four-volume novel; a so-called epistolary tome, written in the form of a series of imagined letters between fiercely rivalrous ex-lovers the Marquise De Merteuil and the Vicomte De Valmont.

In the Sydney Theatre Company’s three-hour production (Sam Strong’s directorial debut for same) Pamela Rabe is the Marquise and Hugo Weaving the Vicomte. Notwithstanding an almost uniformly supporting cast, including Heather Mitchell as Madame De Volanges, it’s these two that tower. Not only because the script gives weight to their characters, but because they seem to muster everything they’ve learnt in their brilliant careers.

One could be forgiven for thinking one is at the Ensemble, since this is, despite the depravity portrayed, a very ‘straight’ play structurally. The cue comes from the elaborate set, superbly constructed and almost operatic in scale, which depicts a sumptuous salon ambience. These people are the idle rich, whiling away the hours playing cards or in extramarital exertions; one carries no more forethought than the other and, mostly, no more foreplay.

Mitchell and Rabe, who are stage (albeit emotionally distant) cousins, are playing cards as we enter the theatre, while conversing with Mitchell’s stage daughter, Cecile, who has just been released from a nunnery. The Marquise, in summing-up the character of Valmont for the still naive Cecile’s benefit, might as easily be speaking of herself: “Monsieur Le Vicomte de Valmont, my child (whom you very probably don’t remember, except that he is conspicuously charming), never opens his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do.” In uttering this, she seems, perhaps, oblivious to the declaration’s inherent irony. It’s a bitter-and-twisted line that establishes the tenor of the dialogue and cruelly preconceived actions of the two principals.

From this moment on, one is constantly in admiration, awe and envious of the sheer excellence, sophistication and biting wit of Hampton’s construction, in which he deploys words and phrases like rapiers and scythes. Weaving and Rabe, particularly, make the very most of it, with accompanying looks and gestures that imbue a further touch of malevolence. They are dressed in modern garb; a good decision, backed eloquently by the artistic directors, in their programme notes, where they’re upfront in saying “Sam has dispensed with the frills, laces and powdered faces, as much to draw the line straight to today as to allow the play, situation and characters to sing, unencumbered”.

The only problem, in practice, is that Rabe’s haute couture isn’t matched in style or elegance by Weaving’s well-worn shoes or (apparently) off-the-rack suit. Both “his man” Azolan (T.J. Power), and the wily up-and-comer Le Chevalier Danceny (James Mackay) far outdo and outweigh him in sartorial resplendence; not a good look and, certainly, a perplexing one. It’s as if he turned-up at the theatre dressed as he is and didn’t have time for hair, makeup or wardrobe. it’s a relatively minor point, but an odd oversight nonetheless.

While on quibbles, my only other one would be (and, yes, it’s an old hobbyhorse) the disparity of accents: while the younger actors (notably Geraldine Hakewell’s Cecile and Justine Clarke’s La Presidente De Tourvel) sounded Australian, Hugo, especially, tended more towards a vaguely British disposition. I don’t really mind, in this case, what direction is taken, but it would be considerably less distracting if there was an evenness across the cast. Granted, there’s at least a theoretical argument that the dissonance serves Cecile, who sounds so much less worldly when rubbing-up against the Vicomte, but I don’t think, if that’s the intent, it really comes off.

But it’s mere chicken-feed as a complaint. This is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of theatre which reminds us it’s hard to surpass a really good script, really good direction (love the overlapping scene ‘fades’ and off-stage action), really good actors and really good craft. Among which is the aforementioned set (Dale Ferguson); Mel Page’s costumes, other than Hugo’s; lighting (Harley T. A. Kemp) and, above all composition (Alan John) and sound design (Steve Francis), both of which may just be as good and sympathetic as I’ve ever heard, while still being bold statements in their own right. John’s innovative jazz scene segues are made to sound absolutely sensational.

The real heroes here is Hampton’s adaptation. To condense De Laclos’ rambling opus into a tight, thrilling play (even if it’s still a longish one) is a feat of determination in itself. To infuse it with so many piquant allusions and phrases that turn like screws (no pun intended) transforms it into the very stuff that makes other writers apt to surrender their laptops for good.

Pamela Rabe in Les Liaisons Dangereuses | Wharf 1 (Pic: Brett Boardman)

The details: Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays the Wharf 1 theatre until June 9. Tickets on the company website.

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