Two related metaphors pervade any version of Choderlos de Laclos's notorious 1782 epistolary novel: sex as a game, and love as war. The STC's excellent new production conveys with the starkest clarity both the humour of the game and the horror of the war.
The play's most extravagant warrior/player is the rake Valmont (Hugo Weaving), who is the sexual equivalent of a guerilla. But the master strategist is his ex-lover Merteuil (Pamela Rabe), who plays her cards very close to her breasts. The young lovers they manipulate like pawns, under the guise of assistance and training, are the novice Cécile (Geraldine Hakewill) and the space cadet Danceny (James Mackay).
The 1988 film was visually splendid, but all those wigs and face powders and lace tend to diminish the characters in the direction of caricature, allowing us to dismiss their machinations as historical aberrations of little relevance to anyone alive today. Here the fine achievement of director Sam Strong is to make even the more outlandish roles believable and understandable. He does this by subjugating every aspect of production to the actors' connection with the audience; given the very strong script and a very strong cast, this is a formula for a powerful theatrical experience. He has stripped away almost all period attributes, along with any change of scenery. Hartley T A Kemp's lighting is deliberately subdued; even a few innocuous jazzy interludes by Alan John seem like slightly raucous intrusions between the tightly controlled scenes. Mel Page's costumes, in particular two refined yet spectacular outfits for the Marquise de Merteuil, have a timelessness that we can both aspire and relate to; their modernist lack of ornamentation is the opposite of the lace and brocade we would expect from the time of Louis XVI.
The small semi-circular theatre of Wharf 1 helps build intimacy (perhaps even complicity) with the audience; a larger venue would have returned more revenue but at an artistic loss. The several salons in the script are collapsed (without any indication of variation) by set designer Dale Ferguson into a single apartment of antique but generic elegance, vaguely referencing some historic past but never pinning the characters to it. Even the duel, specified in the script as a "misty December dawn in the Bois de Vincennes," (formerly royal hunting grounds, now on the eastern end of the Paris Metro) is fought, without any visual explanation, across the salon, but this implausibility does not distract us from the breath-gasping action. Strong boldly changes the swordfight into a round of Russian roulette, gathering several dramatic ticks, as well as making the weapon more familiar than the original épée. He also keeps the dead and wounded on stage beyond their logical exits, leaving more bodies on the floor than in the fifth act of a Shakespearean tragedy. A similar overlag is leaving Merteuil gazing at Valmont during a mission she has brainwashed him to undertake, cleverly underlining her malign influence. In so many such decisions, Strong uses his creativity with the self-restraint of a veteran.
The many liberties that Strong takes with the script are minor compared to those that its author Christopher Hampton took in 1986 when he adapted the novel's letters for a small theatre. The twin necessities of translating from page to stage and from French to English proved a fertile mother of invention; Hampton invented a remarkable language with the complex syntax of 18th century French over a contemporary vocabulary from our present age of international English. The text combines the wit of Wilde for its comedy and the bite of Albee for its tragedy. In the mouth of a mediocre actor such long sentences could be confusing and cumbersome; in the deep and perfectly modulated voices of Rabe and Weaving they are a delight to hear and a pleasure to interpret.