Les Liaisons Dangereuses | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft – Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving. Cover – Justine Clarke and Hugo Weaving. Photos – Brett Boardman

In Love in the Western World, one of the most influential academic books written about love, Denis de Rougement argues that love is really the sublimated desire for death. For love to survive, he contends, it must have obstacles, and true love will not only seek to overcome them, but seek further obstacles. He uses the image of the famous doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde as his example, sleeping together illicitly in the forest, a drawn sword – the threat of death – lying between them.

These are the ideas that Sydney Theatre Company's outstanding production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses explores: love and revenge, love and war, love and death. For old sparring partners and onetime lovers the Comte de Valmont (Hugo Weaving) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Pamela Rabe), love – or rather, seduction –  is a game in which they are always the victors. Both have different methods: Valmont, a man, may be more overt, and is celebrated as a famous seducer, while Merteuil, a woman, must hide her conquests ("When I want a man, I have him. When he wants to tell, he finds he can't," she explains). What unites them both is that love is a game for which they understand the rules, and because of this, they can use love as a weapon to manipulate those around them.

Hugo Weaving and Pamela Rabe absolutely inhabit their roles. It was a privilege to watch two such charismatic performers ply their craft. The great, destructive love between Valmont and Merteuil is ultimately the driver of the plot, but what is perhaps more important is their friendship, full of witty, clever repartee, and Weaving and Rabe got the balance between the two just right. Justine Clarke provided an excellent counterpoint as the moral Presidente de Tourvel, and while her character was not given as much rich material to work with, her emotional journey was totally real and very moving. James Mackay and Geraldine Hakewill also gave great performances as young (but not too clever) lovers Danceny and Cecile, and special mention should go to Ashley Ricardo, who did a fantastic job in the relatively thankless role of Emilie.

Outstanding as all the performances in this show were (and I'd be hard-pressed to pick a fault in any of them), the real star of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is Sam Strong's direction. Strong has a real gift for distilling ideas from texts, and this show was a case in point. His decision to take Les Liaisons Dangereuses out of its original pre-Revolutionary France setting proved to be inspired, stripping away a layer between the actors, the audience, and the ideas at the text's core. Perhaps the most striking element of his direction was the way the whole structure of the play seemed to break down as the show went on. In the first act, writer Christopher Hampton's (numerous) scene breaks were largely observed. In the second act, scenes began to melt into one another, the boundaries blurring and fading, pathetic fallacy as Valmont's control too began to ebb away. Also worthy of especial mention was the duel scene. One would think there was only so much tension that could be built in a pistols-at-dawn duel, but what Strong does with it and the atmosphere he creates is nothing short of extraordinary.

Like Tristan and Isolde, a sword lies between all the lovers in this play, but only Valmont and Merteuil know how to wield it. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the story of what happens when they ultimately turn those swords on each other. What results is an incredible piece of theatre from a group of masterful theatremakers. It is suspenseful, sexy, dark, and provocative. Easily one of the best shows of the year to date.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton | from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos

Director Sam Strong

Venue: Wharf 1 Theatre
Dates: 5 April – 9 June, 2012
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes, including interval
Tickets: $45 – $90
Bookings: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Most read Sydney reviews

Hotter than Hamilton, cooler than Come From Away, Merrily We Roll Along is the just the ticket...

After twenty-one years with the Sydney Theatre Company, the Wharf Review has jumped ship, so to...

Pinchgut’s production of Platée is a banquet for the senses. It is also a milestone in its...