The recent Broadway opening of the Donmar Warehouse's Les Liaisons Dangereuses marked the third time Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke has helmed the play. Her second mounting was the 2015 London production on which this Broadway version is based, and her first — "Well, the first time doesn't really count," she laughs. "I was at university."
One of the highlights this time around, the director reports, is working with an all-star ensemble led by Tony winners Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer. Schreiber takes on the role of notorious rake Le Vicomte de Valmont, while McTeer (the only cast member reprising a role from the Donmar) plays the manipulative widow La Marquise de Merteuil. The show follows that lascivious pair as they corrupt and humiliate recent convent graduate Cécile Volanges, virtuous and happy wife Madame de Tourvel, and young romantic Le Chevalier Danceny.
Rourke remembers her time in the rehearsal room with the cast as "the most enormous fun."
"I've had an extraordinary time working with all of them," she says, "and to bring Liev and Janet, who are these two titans, together...that's been hugely exciting for me."
What originally drew you to Les Liaisons Dangereuses?
I was totally fascinated by it, I think honestly, out of a sort of naivety and sexual curiosity. I was 19 when I first did it. I think I was probably more a Cécile than any other character in the play. I also I think was drawn to the great range of roles for women. That's one of the amazing things about it. Of course there's this huge role in Valmont, but there are also these amazing female characters around him.
How did you come to do it at the Donmar?
Christopher Hampton was on the board at the Bush Theatre. And when I took over there as artistic director, I very gauchely asked him if he'd ever be prepared to let me direct it one day. Then when I started at the Donmar, we went back to him and he graciously allowed us the rights to do it and it was a success, and Arielle Tepper Madover, who's our First Look Producer at the Donmar, decided she wanted to bring it to Broadway.
Between that original university production and this one, what's changed the most?
I think every time I come back to this play, I come back with a more mature understanding of why people behave as they behave. I think that as I'm getting older I'm getting wiser, and I think that the conversations I'm able to have with the actors in those roles are, in a very profound sense, more mature, more honest, and more informed by experiences I've been through in my own life around those things. I've been an artistic director for ten years now in what has been, until very recently, an almost entirely male-dominated profession. And of course lots of things that Merteuil says about living in a world that's run by men have always resonated with me.
Do you feel as though this story is able to remain relevant?
It's a play that speaks about sex and power, and this country at the moment, because of the way your election is going, is in the absolute grip of that. It's been very interesting to hear the reaction of the audience, not only to the character of this seducer, but also, to this woman who sits at the center of the play, who through this most astonishing act of self-will uses self-determination and a profound and sometimes corrosive control in order to survive and be able to carve her own path through the society in which she lives. I'm not for a moment suggesting that there are direct analogues in any way, but due as much as anything else to an accident of timing, the play is giving audiences the space to reflect on what sex and power really mean, especially between the genders.
What about this play makes it so enduring?
I think one of the reasons the play endures, and the thing that I sometimes forget to say about Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which has been said to me by a number of literature critiques, is that it is probably the greatest stage adaptation of a novel that we have. I can't really think of one that's as fine or as compelling or as enduring as this. And that's an amazing achievement on Christopher's part. Sometimes I think it's so skillful what he's done that we think, "Oh, it's just a play" and don't realize that actually it's a four hundred page French novel.
Do you think current Broadway audiences find Les Liaisons Dangereuses shocking?
I think the reason it shocks is because of the structure of it. It's a very good play at seducing you into a false sense of security with characters, into feeling like you know what's going to happen next. It's very good at making you complicit with the behavior of Valmont and Merteuil. You know, if you laugh, it immediately repurchases that laugh from you at a cost. And I love plays like that.
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