One very good thing about such a play is the number of juicy roles for women. And all the divas that are the divas in the current Stratford company were there: Martha Henry, Seana McKenna, Sara Topham and Yanna McIntosh. And Tom McCamus was the natural choice for Valmont (he shares a certain rough sensuality with Malkovitch, the most recognizable fulfillment of the role).
The script is from playwright Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for the film screenplay that most of us know. There were definite assonances between the two, mostly to great effect (like the scene where Valmont opens Madame de Tourvel’s bodice as she struggles to breath against the emotions she’s feeling). Wisely, events such as Tourvel’s bloodletting and death are left off-stage. Weirdly, the play ends not with Marquise de Mertueil ostracism from society, but with the lurking hulk of the guillotine, implying a greater come-uppance from the many servants who witness all of the sordid machinations of their masters and mistresses.
McKenna had the right mix of libertine lust and barely perceptible hysteria for Merteuil. She was equal to McCamus in cadence and the timing between the two was bang on. Both are well aware of the value of waiting a beat.
Martha, whom I love, is able to convey the old Aunt as someone who is aware, particularly of Valmont’s true nature but also of the realities of life for a woman in her time: “Those who are most worthy of it are never made happy by it.” In other hands, the character can come across as a bit dottering, or purposefully ignorant, but the sense you get from this performance is that de Rosamonde herself is a survivor who’s played the game and chooses to stay above it.
While Mme de Volanges isn’t a critical role in the play, I was pleasantly surprised to see Yanna McIntosh, whose portrayal of Lady MacBeth I thoroughly enjoyed a season or two ago. And you should have seen the awesome hair she had going on.
McCamus’s Valmont is wonderfully vile, as we want him to be, but he is equal to the task of showing us the transformation and final surrender to this new feeling of “love” engendered by his relationship with de Tourvel. The “it’s beyond my control” scene was emotionally powerful, especially on his side (Topham may have gone a bit over the top on this one).
As for the younger characters, Bethany Jillard does a pretty good job as Cecelie Volanges, though the transition from convent girl to lusty wench didn’t convert well to the audience (though perhaps that has something to do with a scene in which Valmont suddenly thrusts a hand up her skirt in a way that looked much more like rape than seduction).
I wasn’t so hot on Michael Therriault as Danceny. He just seemed the most dissonant from what the character is supposed to be, and they gave him a definite buffoonery that made the later hook-up with Merteuil seem utterly absurd.
Audience reaction was a bit strange at times. The witty repartee between Merteuil and Valmont was understandable, but the huge guffaws as Valmont brought de Tourvel to the point of madness (where she basically surrenders her “soul” to her feelings for him) were awkward at best. We were watching a woman be corrupt in her religion and her morals, not a farcical boudoir romp. Same for the several scenes where Valmont thrusts his hand with little grace or good feeling up the skirt of more than one woman – meant to be a visual representation of a more aggressive thrust, the laughter was, I hope, just a way of coping with a decidedly unfunny assault.
All and still, it was a really great production, and made me glad again that we have such top-class entertainment nearby.