I made a last-minute outing to the NTLive transmission of the Donmar's stunning revival of Christopher Hampton's play, based on a classic French novel from the late 18th century. Seduction and manipulation have never been more cynical, nor more painful in their results. Josie Rourke's production shows the same plasticity, musicality and design flair as her memorable revival of The Recruiting Officer a couple of years ago. With soft lighting augmented by candles, the Donmar stage becomes a series of 18th century salons and bedrooms.
As the Marquise de Merteuil, Janet McTeer gives the performance of a lifetime. Who says there are no great parts for women over 50? I've seen her play Petrucchio opposite Kathryn Hunter in an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare's Globe, and as Schiller's Mary Stuart at the Donmar opposite Harriet Walter. These days I think she lives mainly in the U.S., so this is a rare chance to see her performing in London. She effortlessly dominates the stage as a woman whose calculating sexual plotting masks an inner vulnerability. This is a woman who knows that her own seductive powers may be fading as she hits middle age, and is increasingly taking vicarious pleasure in manipulating others. What motivates her most of all is power, not sex. Did I detect a hint of Mrs Thatcher?
Dominic West, as her partner in crime, the practised seducer Valmont, is a perfect foil, but he doesn't quite convey the character's inner weakness underneath the confident and callous exterior. His brutal abandonment of Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy) makes a huge impact, but there's not much sense of inner turmoil going on. Cassidy is also superbly cast, and I now realise I have seen her on stage before in the RSC's The Crucible, and back in 2002 in Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
One advantage of seeing a broadcast transmission is the bonus of an interval on-stage interview with the director and writer. Josie Rourke got the biggest laugh of the evening by confessing that when she had first directed the play as a 19-year-old university student she had only had sex about four times and that she had been wanting to direct it again ever since. Her approach to the play, which Hampton evidently agrees with, is to keep it firmly in period, which allows its modernity to become apparent. I've been reading quite a few books recently on France in the years before 1789, and I found this play really stimulated my imagination. Hampton's dialogue provides a model of how to put 18th century characters on stage talking naturally without forcing them into contemporary speech patterns that sound anachronistic.
While there's no substitute for being present in the audience in the intimate space of the Donmar, this transmission by NTLive was technically superb, coping well with the cramped space and showing Tom Scutt's design and Mark Henderson's lighting off to great advantage. There were just enough shots of the audience to show we were watching a live performance, but not too many. And the quality of the picture and sound at the E.M. Forster theatre at Tonbridge School was excellent.