Eighteenth century France, and the rule of the Bourbons has encouraged decadent behaviour amongst its leisure moneyed class. This is a play adapted from the ultimate French novel of seduction and intrigue, and perhaps tellingly, is performed by an all-female cast. So we have the ‘ruining’ of Cecile, just 15 years old and engaged to be married, as well as the seduction of the religious and married Madame de Torvel. All this is orchestrated by the Marquise de Merteuil , who was once in love with the seducer Valmont and is now determined to set in train a disastrous course of events through lies, innuendo and carefully constructed ‘evidence’.
It’s a complex plot and there are a lot of twists along the way. For those familiar with the 1988 film, with its sumptuous interiors and costumes, comparisons may be invidious. Instead, we are confronted with the bleak facts of the scandal in scenes that are often quite spare and unflinching. It is a difficult plot to convey to an audience, and it’s easy to get lost or miss a vital piece of dialogue, best perhaps to go with the flow and not to worry too much about detail.
There are a lot of good ideas here. In the opening scenes, lighting freezes the action of the characters to make each a tableau with the look of a Caravaggio painting. Cecile plays and sings to a recorded soundtrack which includes her hesitations and mistakes, which must have been tricky to organise and complex to deliver. The final scene, with Madame de Merteuil’s letters strewn about the stage makes its point perfectly.
Costumes for this all-femaile cast are simple. Waistcoats for the male characters, corseted tops for the females. Madame de Merteuil looks suitably decadent in maroon, and so stands out from the other members of the cast who are mostly clad in varieties of beige, and are often very similar in appearance.
There aren’t a huge amount of props but that furniture does need moving, and scene changes are punctuated by the cast effecting those rearrangements. This slows down the drama, but it does give the audience (or me at least) time to think about the scene just past and to sort out its ideas on what has occurred.
The biggest problem is that the stage at the Gatehouse is large and productions can get lost if they don’t utterly dominate the space. Madame de Merteuil does this splendidly on occasion, but I often missed that swagger necessary establish these characters in time and space.
Review by Michael Spring
10th – 15th August at Upstairs at the Gatehouse