It’s a Wednesday a night in April in Shanghai and in case you forgot you live in a port city it’s absolutely pouring down outside—not one of those nights you’d usually want to be out-and-about on without good reason. Nevertheless, somewhere down one of the mazes of back-alleys off Jing’an District’s Yanping Road the Finger Moving Lifestyle Space is playing host to Theatre Anon for the curtain-raiser of their latest production of Dangerous Liaisons.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the play, DL was originally written and published by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782 as an epistolary novel depicting a series of scandalous correspondences between members of France’s pre-Revolutionary upper class. At the center of the controversy are Merteuil and Valmont, a pair of ex-lovers whose rivalry catapults both them and practically their entire social circle into a succession of intimacies, seductions, and revenge. Cited for its amorality, celebrated for its feminism, and debated for its political intentions, the book found an enduring audience with French readers, only to be ordered destroyed by the Parisian Royal Court in 1824 (two decades after Laclos’ death).
The story was revived more than a century-and-a-half later for the Royal Shakespeare Company by playwright Christopher Hampton where both public and critical acclaim soon brought the production to Broadway. Subsequently, Hampton’s script served as the basis for the film directed by Stephen Frears, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, and then-still-relatively-unknowns Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman (the screenplay garnered Hampton an Academy Award in 1989).
Theatre Anon’s show comes fresh on the heels of the thirtieth anniversary of the RSC production, from which it—appropriately enough—takes its parentage. From there, the biggest change to come at the hands of director Philip Hohol is to give the story a modern-day twist—swapping Paris for Shanghai and the French countryside for the coastal harbors of Hong Kong. Beyond that, the play for-the-most-part stays true to Hampton’s adaptation and Hohol delivers it with full satire and innuendo.
The real attraction here for audiences will be the acting and the stand-out performance has to go to Arran Hawkins who puts in a minor tour de force as Valmont, appearing in all but one scene in the play and executing a revolving-door series of oh-so-stylish costume changes along the way. One gets the sense with this role that Hawkins is intent on proving himself to be a cut above in the local acting set and at the present juncture his level of quality is clearly shining through.
If it can be said that the mark of a great character often lies in her ability to generate discord in the mindset of audiences, Natasha Portwood’s performance as Merteuil ensures it remains impossible to wholly respect or condemn Laclos’ heroine-villainess for her actions. Ultimately, Portwood brings to the stage the level of immovable defiance her character demands in order to convincingly propel the story’s events forward (keeping in mind that, were she willing to—quite literally—lay down and submit, much of what happens here could’ve been avoided).
My crueller, unsympathetic side tells me the clueless and naïve in this world deserve to be manipulated and Crystal Chu’s performance as Cecile leaves little desire in my mind that her character should be spared. Indeed, at times, watching Chu is like watching some fragile creature oblivious to the fact that she’s being tossed about by a couple of savage predators purely for their (and our) own amusement.
Arguably, one of the biggest acting challenges of the piece falls on Adrienne Johnson as Tourvel—perhaps the most highly caricaturized of story’s players. Nevertheless, Johnson’s performance only gains in strength as Tourvel’s emotional instability mounts and she delivers a level of hysterics that would bring the police to your neighbor’s gated compound at two o’clock in the morning.
If there is a stumbling block throughout the course of the production it largely stems from limitations of the space in which it takes place. The stage is boxed in from three-sides—with no real wings to speak of—meaning set changes do get a bit cumbersome as chairs, tables and even a bed and a sofa are moved on and off stage during the inter-scenes. As a result, the entire show clocks in at just under three hours (intermission included), so don’t plan on being at the bar for those after-theatre drinks until at least 11:15PM.
Looking ahead to the remainder of the show’s run, expect things to only intensify on stage—meaning, rain or shine, now is as good a time as ever to get out and support your local theatre scene. With Dangerous Liaisons, Theatre Anon delivers both an entertaining evening and a cold reminder that in the war between men and women, love is war.
Theatre Anon’s production of Dangerous Liaisons continues at the Finger Moving Lifestyle Space with shows extending to April 30th. For full details about tickets, venue, dates, and showtimes (as well as our interview with director Philip Hohol), check here.