John Malkovich’s career-defining turn as the Vicomte de Valmont in the film adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses created an archetype for the sexually-charged villain. The film was based on a play by Christopher Hampton (he also wrote the screenplay), and cemented the role as one of the more complex and coveted in theatre-land.
Josie Rourke’s stylish and sexy production for the Donmar shows this tale of high-society intrigue doesn’t have to be this way – that the Vicomte can in fact be the least interesting part of the salacious whole. Her production is all about the Marquise de Merteuil, played by a blisteringly on-form Janet McTeer, whose breathy delivery drips with malice, desperation and a dark humour. Dominic West’s Vicomte is positively boorish by comparison, crashing through the play with all the subtlety of a high-school jock. His famous deflowering of the virgin Madame de Tourvel, for instance, is less a seduction than a rape (think Matt Berry declaring: “Roll over now while I do the sex to you”), which makes de Tourvel’s subsequent infatuation slightly baffling.
West’s presence tends to shift the tone from sultry to silly, which must have been a conscious decision; West is a fine enough actor but one to whom guile is just a character in Street Fighter. The result is a surprisingly light adaptation that never sags under its three-hour running time, but won’t have Malkovich worrying about his legacy.
First published in City A.M.