Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Expectation in the air for a highlight of the Paris rentrée: Robert Wilson’s new production of Heiner Müller’s chiselled study of passion and cruelty, which picks up where Laclos left off in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The excitement soon falls flat.

This is Wilson at his most Wilsonian: ultra-stylised set and sound, clockwork precision of movement, geometric furniture in geometric positions. The visual hallmarks are on parade: lightning lighting changes, stark colour contrasts between luminous grey and devil red. Percussive explosions break up the dialogue into staccato fragments. Balletic animal gestures permeate the action: serpentine tongue-flicks, splayed, predatory fingers, catlike stalking, leonine howls.

Pleasing on the eye, exhausting on the ear (the sound really goes a bang too far). But why put such a great text into an elegant straitjacket? The brittleness of the staging weighs down the supple inventiveness of the two leads and the playfulness of the writing.

Little can dim Isabelle Huppert’s sinuous, haughty Merteuil, her sensual baiting, knowing complicity with the audience, sudden demonic laughter – but little is gained by contrived accelerated repetitions of key passages that strip the speech of the speaker. Ariel Garcia Valdès plays Valmont as a tigerish toreador with more than a passing resemblance to Dracula. He is horribly enticing in his perversion of religious imagery, rolling the sacrosanct wickedly off the tongue, yet the performance is slightly subdued. An odd sense of detachment stops this being vintage Valdès.

Nice touches include hands held up as mirrors to reflect swapped selves, shifting sands of the couple’s role play. Young Valmont hangs like an upside-down crucified Christ, expressionless, as Merteuil struts her stuff to get a flicker of sexual interest. But too often the staging feels intrusive. A hardworking team of four stagehands keeps trotting on stage to unhook and reposition a gauze curtain. Merteuil’s curved sofa- chariot inches forward and back. A wafer-thin fish tank makes a brief appearance. This is distraction where none was needed.

I was mystified by the end. It felt like letting off fireworks inside a box. ★★☆☆☆

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