October 29, 2020
Converting novels into ballets has been done successfully countless times. It’s a whole lot trickier when the novel is epistolary, made up entirely of letters, however. Therein lies one of the major problems with Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 Dangerous Liaisons, a complex tale, full of sub plots, with many characters, and that really does have an awful lot of letters passed around. Added to that, David Nixon also had to contend with the necessity of cut down casts and set caused by the pandemic.
In some ways, the losing the set, which was relatively simple anyway, actually helps to keep the focus firmly on the characters and the action. Even with just four chandeliers, a couple of chaise-longues, and a writing table and chair, the ballet firmly places us in the 18th-century.
Gorgeously dressed in period costume, the ballet also leaves no-one in any doubt of the games the idle rich take delight in playing in their boudoirs before they are well and truly hoist by their own petard with one of the main protagonists killed in a dual of honour.
The company looked fabulous too. You would not have guessed this was only their second week of live performances in more than seven months.
I have never seen his full version of the ballet; or the hit 1988 film starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer; or read the book. Any one of them would surely have helped because Nixon does not succeed entirely in conveying the story clearly, however. That events happen is obvious. Why they happen is less so. A couple of voiceovers that ‘read’ the content of letters helps a little, but even after reading the synopsis in the programme beforehand, and rereading it slowly in the interval, I was struggling.
This is partially relieved by Nixon clearly showing the differences between the good and the calculating and bad, and the innocent and the corrupted. He also very neatly portrays the sense of the plans of the scheming Marquese de Merteuil spiralling out of control. Act 2 is particularly compelling.
Abigail Prudames is a strong Marquise, the poisonous gamemaster who, it turns out, is not as in charge as she thinks she is. Joseph Taylor is tall and elegant as her former lover Valmont, a shameless pleasure seeker still up for the challenge of seducing Antoinette Brooks-Daw’s Madame de Tourvel. The gorgeous pas de deux where she realises she has unexpected feelings for him is one of the highlights of the ballet.
It’s far from the only excellent duet. The novel doesn’t actually use the word rape, but Valmont’s seduction of the flirtatious, easily led, and yet one senses still virginal Cécile Volanges, played to perfection by Rachael Gillespie, is just what it is. Nixon’s duet is graphic and leaves no doubt while remaining a decent as it can. Valmont has time to get involved with a courtesan (Sarah Chun) too, at one point using her back as a writing desk after another dramatic coming together ends up in bed. It’s humorous and uncomfortable in equal measure.
Gercourt (Ashley Dixon) and Chevalier Danceny (Filippo Di Vilio), who courts Cécile and is taken by the Marquise as her own lover are somewhat less well drawn. The danced duel between Danceny and Valmont, performed without actual swords and that ends with the latter’s death after he has revealed the Marquise’s plotting, is very cleverly done, however.
The collection of Vivaldi that provides the score was excellently played by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, hidden away behind the backdrop until the curtain calls.
With another at least four-week lockdown about to start, who knows what the even December will bring for ballet, let alone 2021. What I think we can be sure of is that companies are beavering away behind the scenes, doing their utmost to perform in front of audiences. Many venues are doing their bit too. Everything at the Leeds Playhouse was brilliantly set up, the staff as welcoming and friendly as you could wish for. No-one would wear a mask and no-one would socially-distance out of choice, but the evidence is that theatre is safe.
“I get knocked down, but I get up again,” it says in big red letters on the outside wall of Playhouse. Get up again we must. Let us hope that it’s not too long before circumstances allow us back.