Dangerous Liaisons

Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the French classic comes to Shanghai.

Love, seduction, and scandal are in the air this spring as Theatre Anon prepares to bring Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the eighteenth century French classic Dangerous Liaisons to Shanghai. Director Philip Hohol takes a break from rehearsals to give us a lesson in ruthlessness, duplicity, and why revenge is a dish best served cold.

For those who aren’t familiar with either the book or the play, Dangerous Liaisons centers on the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont—a pair of ex-lovers-turned-rivals who enter into a bet over the chances of the latter to seduce a young, fresh-from-the-convent bride-to-be. Along the way, some pretty amoral stuff goes down. What was it about the material that made you want to stage this production?

I think the trick of the amoral stuff is that it delivers to us a very moral message. The genius of the material is that it takes things that, if we’re honest, we’ve all perhaps come close to in our lives, in one way or another, and gives it to us in a frank, mature, and direct way, so that we cannot blink. Why did I want to stage the production? Because it’s a chance to investigate who we modern humans are. And, also, who wouldn’t want to stage it?

How long has the current production been in the works?

We started casting and putting it together in January.  We’ve been rehearsing throughout March and April.  It’s been on Theatre Anon’s ‘to do list’ for quite a while.

Is this your first time working as a director with Theatre Anon?

I’ve worked with many of the actors in different plays before.  For Theatre Anon, I directed Betrayal [back in 2013]. The first play I directed in Shanghai was King Lear for Shanghai Repertory Company and that was where I met Arran Hawkins and Natasha Portwood [both of whom appear in Dangerous Liaisons].  We’ve enjoyed working with each other since then, so when they told me about this project, the natural answer was, “I’m in.”

As a director, when you work on a project like this, where do you start?

Different plays start with different inspirations. Sometimes it’s simply, “Great, I get to tell this story and put my spin on it,” and sometimes it’s an aspect of the world of the play that I want to get at. For this particular project and this particular script, I was very aware that the themes in the play could easily resonate throughout the strata of uber-upper crust Shanghai denizens. So, I started from what inspirations I could get from translating it to modern society.

I was very aware that the themes in the play could easily resonate throughout the strata of uber-upper crust Shanghai denizens.

Is that to say you’re planning to modernize the play for this production? Should we expect to see corsets and powdered wigs or will the characters be ditching the quill pens for iPhones and WeChat?

Oh, it’s going to be all iPhones and WeChat. Definitely. But, do you know what’s funny? Even though all the characters have iPhones and use them, we’re sticking with the letter writing and we’re sticking with the totally awesome swordfight at the end. These are creative anachronisms that will themselves not to be changed. It’s a sign that the play we’re dealing with is a classic.

The story has been retold in various ways in the form of a novel, a play, and a film. What is the most exciting part for you about developing this particular project for the stage?

For me, it’s been finding different ways to evoke the feeling of modern day Shanghai. Not only that, but when you work on a play, you’re constantly discovering things. The play reveals itself to you in little ways over and over again, and to me that’s so exciting, like unearthing the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamen.

The current production takes as its starting point Christopher Hampton’s mid-Eighties revival of the story. While it isn’t the only adaptation to have been done, it is more-often-than-not the one which has really endured in people’s memory since that time. What do you think it is about this particular adaptation which has continued to capture the interest of audiences?

My guess would be that in a funny way the eighties was a more mature time than now. The fact that it came out when it did, that the audience was there for it, and that it received the recognition it got are all reasons why it has lasted.  But, to be fair, none of these adaptations would be here if it were not for the original author.  We have his genius to thank for such a memorable story.

A lot has changed since author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos first published the story as novel in 1782. In a world where celebrity divorces, sex tapes, and Ashley Madison are par for the course in the media, do you think the story still has the ability to shock and appal the way it did back in the day?

What’s shocking about the play is not necessarily some of the events that happen in it, but its frankness, maturity, and fearlessness.  You’d never get a story like this these days.  It’s simply too much for us.  What these characters do to each other, what happens on stage, they’re so far gone that they’ve forgotten how cruel they are. They’ve gone numb.  And, I think that speaks directly to many people in today’s society. So has it lost its edge? In a word:  No.

What’s shocking about the play is not necessarily some of the events that happen in it, but its frankness, maturity, and fearlessness.

Are there any themes or other aspects of the play you hope to emphasize or draw out into the open with this show?

Well, foremost, we’re building upon it in how we’re adapting it to a modern Shanghai setting. That in itself is probably enough. One of the themes that have been uncovered is our fear of love. All these characters would be a great deal happier if they just accepted that what they were feeling was love. Then they might be able to get on with things.

Are you able to pick a favorite character? Do you find yourself cheering for one or another of the combatants or are you equally disgusted—and entertained—by everyone involved?

That’s a tough question. I’d have to go with equal feelings for all the characters. But I’m not going to tell you if I’m disgusted or entertained or what have you. That’s a secret for the audience to find out. If we’ve done our job right, you won’t know who to cheer for and who to hate.  You know those people in your life whom you love to hate and hate to love?

What has it been like working with this cast through rehearsals so far?

These guys—and all the cast—have been a joy to work with. They bring to the production—and I really mean this—bravery, fearlessness, vulnerability, and natural instincts that make my job much easier than I have any right to expect it to be. Crystal Chu is a natural [as Cecile Volanges] and I think audiences will be charmed and a little heartbroken by her. Natasha [as Merteuil] and Arran [as Valmont] have somewhat of a history with each other, having been in a number of plays before this. If audiences are familiar with their work, I think they will be surprised by what these two have come up with. Adrienne Johnson’s job [as Tourvel] has been a hard one, and I think that—I hope that— audiences will fall in love with her just like some of the characters in the play do.

The production is set to go off at the Finger Moving Lifestyle Space in Jing’an District in Shanghai. Is that actually a real place?

It totally is.  When you cook, your fingers move.  And that’s why it’s called the Finger Moving Lifestyle Space.  They’re all about slow lifestyle and providing a space for that to happen, whether it be through cooking, or experiencing any kind of culture that reminds us that life is worth living.  It’s ironic that a play like Dangerous Liaisons opens up here, but maybe there’s a lesson to be learned in that too.

What do you hope audiences get out of the performance come opening night?

A thrill ride.  And laughs.  And tears.  If we get at least three, “Oh, no she didn’t” responses, then we’ve done our job.

One last question! Although the phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in either the novel or the play, Dangerous Liaisons has long been associated with the expression, ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. Having spent some time immersed in the whole concept, can you offer any best practices or tips on how I can get back at any of my ex-girlfriends?

Never write anything to them.  Get them to write to you.  Always be sure they think you’re the only one.  Win or die. Of course, you know, you could just forgive and forget.  But, I guess, where’s the fun in that?

Tickets for Theatre Anon’s production of Dangerous Liaisons are now on sale (200RMB in advance or 220RMB on the door) online here or by emailing the.theatre.anon[at]gmail.com.


Finger Moving Lifestyle Space
2F – Lane 273
Entrance at 58 Yanping Road
Jing’an, Shanghai

Dates and showtimes:

April 20-24 & 27-30
Evening shows only. All shows start at 8pm.


Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian writer and editor. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

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