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Review: Dangerous Liaisons – Little Ones Theatre

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234 years after Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Les liaisons
dangereuses was published, and 31 years after the premier production
of its stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton, this new production
from Little Ones Theatre comes to Melbourne as a fresh and lively
piece of contemporary theatre. Those who’ve studied the novel will
certainly appreciate how director Stephen Nicolazzo has captured the
sardonic spirit of the French aristocracy, while newcomers will surely
be enticed into discovering more about it all. Most importantly
though, this sojourn amongst the affairs of the French court has a
meanly entertaining story to tell and the courage to tell it like it
was.

It was a world where wit and amoral intellect was the currency of the
day, ruled by those whose minds were as nimble as their bodies and
even more adept at vigorous intercourse, but whose hearts were held in
as tightly as their bladders. Amazingly, Nicolazzo, and indeed his
nearly all-female cast, are daring enough to match the intensity of
the vocal sparring with raunchy nude scenes of masochistic intimacy,
sights that are capable of shocking today’s audiences as much as the
sounds of blasphemy would have shocked 18th century audiences. He
introduces his audience to this arena with an onslaught of ridiculous
wigs, pasty white faces, exaggerated mannerisms, opulent set design
from Eugyeene Teh and a robot-like match of Four in a Row. Here the
original Connect Four is spruced up with some video game sound
effects, just as the rest of the play is peppered with interludes of
modern pop music.

While it’s certainly been done before, and not always well, the songs
are well chosen to illustrate a battle between the two finest players
in the great game of courtship. Representing men, we have the
seductive Vicomte de Valmont (Zoe Boesen), and on the side of women we
have the decadent Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Alexandra Uldrich).
The two of them look to be evenly matched in cunning, arrogance and
education. They court each other for pride and amusement, just as they
carry on affairs with countless others as a form of recreation and
competition. Their relationship is the classic on-and-off mix of love
and hate, of devotion and indifference.
Both actors are outstanding as these familiar archetypes that, through
the immediacy of live theatre, are given new life. Boesen is as
convincing as she needs to be in the part of a man. It turns out to be
quite an inspired casting choice, seeing as many of the
characteristics that are now considered feminine would have been
regarded as masculine in the French salons. On the other hand, the
Vicomte’s valet, Azolan, is played by Tom Dent, who towers over Boesen
as something of a gentle giant at first, before the Vicomte comes to
realise how much he underestimated him. As the Marquise, Aldrich
somehow manages to switch between, comical, despicable, likeable and
moving with the speed of a lighting change. Her endlessly expressive
face, richly intoned voice and slick movements make her a consistently
fascinating character to watch, even when the main scene is happening
elsewhere.

The Vicomte’s latest challenge, to court the devoutly Catholic and
chronically morose Cécile de Volanges (Brigid Gallacher), forms the
crux of a narrative that exposes the naiveties of both characters. The
Vicomte believes that his heart can be contained again after it has
been let loose, that you can control love and prevent love from
controlling you. A parodic performance of Felix Jaehn’s ‘Ain’t Nobody
(Loves me better)’ succinctly captures the Vicomte’s delusions about
these two of the many women in his life. While his twisted love for
the Marquise is sold successfully by Hampton’s writing and by Aldrich
and Boesen’s peformances, the love he eventually comes to feel for
Cécile is not given enough time or breathing space to feel real,
and certainly not enough to surmount the trite baggage that this plot
line has garnered over the centuries. Fortunately, the Marquise’s
hard-learned lesson that emotions cannot always be suppressed for the
sake of the game is a much more convincing character arc. A playful
karaoke of Whitney Houston’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ is similarly effective
at signaling the universality of the Marquise’s doomed attempt to
fight with, and not against, the sexism of her world, to win at a game
that has always been rigged against her gender instead of seeking to
change the rules.

The only music that doesn’t quite fit is the funk tune that plays over
a certain duel scene, one that felt like it was meant to be the
climax, but ended up being a slow build-up to a fierce contest that
never eventuates. One of the most common problems with many
tragicomedies, is that they often make promises they can’t keep.
However, thanks to the talent of the creative team, and the strong
establishment of its setting and main characters, Dangerous Liaisons
delivers on most of the comedic payoffs it spends time developing in
its first act, and remembers to set up most of the dramatic payoffs it
launches itself into during the second act.

Written by Christian Tsoutsouvas

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August 25th 2016
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