Dangerous Liaisons, Robinson College Auditorium, 20-23 February, 19:30
Reviewer Rachel Thorpe
When the curtain goes up on John Mifsud’s production of Dangerous Liaisons it is as though we are looking at the inside of a dolls house. Every detail is perfect: the set is beautifully appropriate, the costumes are authentic to the last ruffle, and the actors have a doll-like precision.
Unfortunately, as they begin to speak we realise that we are unlikely to move outside of this somewhat restricting and artificial locale. In fact, for a play about “Seduction, Manipulation, and Deceit”, Dangerous Liaisons is surprisingly un-sexy.
The play, set in pre-revolutionary France, tells the story of a pair of ex-lovers. The duo are bitter rivals in the games of revenge and they each use sex to manipulate and humiliate those around them, to varying degrees of success.
The decorum and manners we might expect to find in an aristocratic eighteenth-century household are present and correct. But instead of providing a tantalising contrast with the dark seductive undertones, they succeed in repressing any vibrant energy that the play might have threatened.
There are moments when a sexual force breaks through the rather contained atmosphere. Le Vicomte de Valmont’s (Stefan Haselwimmer) initial ‘seduction’ of Cecile (Nalân Burgess) is shocking, repulsive, erotic, intriguing and funny. Best of all it is uncomfortable to watch. It is one of a few moments when the action on stage actually appears a little ‘dangerous’, and it works.
Nicola Marsh also sizzles as La Marquise de Merteuil, commanding the stage as well as the other characters around her. Just as her burgundy chaise lounge is the centre piece of the set, Marsh really is the centre piece of the play.
It is a shame that her vivacity is not matched by the rest of the cast. Emily Holman is a good example of an actor who has found the ideal tone of sincerity with which to deliver her lines. And so she uses it for every single one of them. The result is that she appears rather over-genuine, and this quickly becomes tiresome.
Julie Rafal, who is burdened with almost all of the play’s overemotional lines, tries admirably to deliver them realistically. Unfortunately, they also they come across as being somewhat false all too often. Although to be honest, just how one is to say the line “I am so desperately unhappy” so many times without it becoming at least a bit artificial is unclear.
Despite its many twists and turns, the plot teeters on the predictable throughout. It is thankfully redeemed by the final scene, which is beautifully directed, and genuinely takes the audience by surprise.
Dangerous Liaisons is at worst melodramatic, but at best decadent and risky. It is not the “dark masterpiece” that it set out to be, but it is enjoyable enough to be worth seeing.