Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Preview by Joshua James Collis – Showbill.ca Editor
November 8, 2016
The University of Victoria Theatre Department presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Phoenix Theatre running from November 10-26, 2016. The award winning play by Christopher Hampton is an award winning adaptation of a 17th century novel of the same name.
Those not acquainted with the 1985 stage play may remember the film adaption Dangerous Liaisons (1988) starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, or the modernized version Cruel Intentions (1999).
The Phoenix’s production is a collaborative effort of students and veteran mentors that’s putting quite the impression on Director Fran Gebhard.
“It’s worked out very, very well. As often as one idea leads to another idea, leads to the best Idea. The collaborative nature of theatre is just so great,” says Gebhard.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of pre-revolution era French aristocrats who challenge each other to a dangerous game of seduction. The stage play was adapted into the 1988 film for which Hampton won an Oscar.
“It’s the same author, same script. That film was taken from the play,” says Gebhard, “it’s a language driven play and I think that’s very important for students who want to go on to any of our big festivals or do any classic pieces, they’re are usually language driven. Certainly there’s a lot of plot in the play.”
Don’t expect a completely droll affair. Les Liaisons Dangereuses will feature sword fights and plenty of excitement alongside its eloquent language.
“I enjoy the play, the language is beautiful. It’s not archaic language, you know it’s everyday. It’s written in the 1980s by Christopher Hampton, who’s a Brit. It’s set in Paris, but we don’t use French accents,” says Gebhard.
The beauty stretches out from beyond the language and into sumptuous world-class costumes and set that echo the script. Graham McMonagle (Wild Honey) is a UVic MFA student and the costume designer for the show. He explains his process.
“Period, psychologically illustrative period, so period silhouette. A big part of the Hampton conceit, or at least a present element in the Hampton conceit is the performative nature of salon culture in this time. It’s what allows our two heroes to play their ultimate game, which is toying with people, possibly destroying people using sex as a weapon,” says McMonagle.
Themes in Les Liaisons Dangereuses should remind young fans of works such as Game of Thrones which feature characters acting badly and manipulating one another, often in the bedroom.
Showbill.ca got a peak at the set and into Graham’s costume shop and the layering and design reflect the multifaceted characters in the play.
“Coming from this performative place, Fran and I discussed this idea about transparency. About having a truth, and layering on transparency on the outside of that. So, that came a long with a bunch of see-through silk fabric, a bunch of time with dye and a bunch of time with paint identifying a sort of decorative paint motif, rather than literal trimming,” says McMonagle.
His costumes deliver a painted motif that identify the characters and stays with them as they overlay themselves with garments which are appropriate to the gesture and the language they are using in the moment.
“You know the thing is, in today’s world we all play different rolls. I’m a different person when I’m a teacher, I’m a different person when I’m out with my friends, I’m different when I’m directing. The people that are having their 15 minutes of fame now – I wouldn’t necessarily say the upper classes – the California people, they have a performative aspect to their life. Sometimes they’ll be the kind of people that will get themselves into all kinds of trouble with the paparazzi doing all kinds of outrageous things to be noticed,” says Gebhard.
The performative nature of society is important in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, especially in light of the period of this piece as it comes to the French Revolution.
“We have a nod to that in a couple of things. One of the things Hampton had thought was a good idea in his production during the 80s was to have a silhouette o the guillotine at the end. I’ve directed the play before and I didn’t really find it successful. I found it cheesy. Barb has designed a really beautiful set for us. It’s turned out to be our destruction of the upper classes,” says Gebhard.
Barbara Clerihue is the set designer for the production.
“One of the things I was talking to Fran about is she was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, the chandeliers there. There was a desire to feel as though you were in the middle of sheets, in the middle of a bedroom, in the middle of sex,” says Clerihue.
The set is all draped fabric and hung a semi-regular fashion around the thrust stage within The Phoenix Theatre, a challenging stage type to work with.
“So, the set is there we’ll get into the house, which is layered as the clothing is. And I hope that people feel at one moment they’re in a grand room, and another moment in a bedroom, and another moment in inside sheets,” says Clerihue.
One of the centerpieces is the huge chandelier hanging above the thrust.
“There’s a big ass chandelier in the middle. This survives to one point in the play when destruction happens. At that point the chandelier disappears and all the fabric drops to the ground. And that’s the guillotine effect,” says Clerihue.
One of the important things about this production is the collective effort that is going into it.
“I don’t actually believe my ideas are the best. I believe the collective effort leads to the best ideas. What I had initially envisioned is not what we have, but what we have is better than what I had initially envisioned,” says Gebhard.
Whereas Fran had envisioned tone on tone, Graham came back with costumes that were temperate and gentle. This same elegant look seeped its way into the set design.
“I honestly feel from my point of view so far that this is the most excited I have been about any production I’ve directed. It’s because of everything coming together. I always love working with the students, and the students often give wonderful performances. I love our production of Midsummer Night’s Dream where we had Puck as a graffiti artist. This was really a bigger challenge was greater, and the rewards are greater. If you liked that play, than you’ll really love this one,” says Gebhard.
The temptation to remove the piece from its original chronological setting did rear its head, but ultimately they decided to keep the production in the 17th century.
“There was this thought to update it. I actually heard Hampton interviewed, and I went to the people who hold the purse strings. Hampton himself has said he’s seen it set in the 1970s, he’s seen it set in the 1950s, and though they were beautifully rendered, he didn’t think it was as impactful for the audience,” says Gebhard.
“About anachronism. I almost feel that Hampton suggests that examining this script, this context, this event quite purely within its period vantage, deepens its truth. The play is an anachronism to the audience’s life. When it begins, we think we’re looking at 20th, 21st century people, and that’s its depth. The performance itself is an anachronism,” says McMonagle.
The cast is populated by fourth and fifth year students and Gebhard couldn’t be happier.
“I’m delighted with the cast. Right now at this time where we’re creating all the affects, and we’re lighting and smoking, seeing the party frocks coming to life on the actors, it’s really exciting. Hard work is paying off,” says Gebhard.
The wonderful thing about Phoenix Theatre productions is the opportunity to see world-class theatre, world-class costumes and set design for a local community theatre price.
“I don’t think you will find this caliber of costuming in many shows in Victoria. I would say this is world-class theatre for a very inexpensive amount. If you are interested is seeing something visually stunning, this is it,” says Clerihue.
“Fran has stage this really beautifully. The support reason is to go see something beautiful. Fran has staged something really beautiful, really, really sensitively. It gives us Hampton’s delicacy, and we’ve wrapped it in delicacy and Fran has staged something really true,” says McMonagle.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is theatre with extraordinary talent and production quality at an ordinary price. It features themes such as protagonists being bad and the kind of delightful bedroom intrigue that drives many modern films and television shows. Don’t miss your opportunity to support the emerging student talents that put this together.
“These kids are rising to the occasion,” says Gebhard.