Theatre: When professional seducers go to war

Morfydd Clark and Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) wrote only one novel, an erotic and psychological masterpiece. It’s a brilliant study of sexual intrigue, and when Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first published in Paris in 1782, it was an immediate succès de scandale and sold out within a few days. Its heartless immorality both shocked and thrilled.

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation has an aristocratic wit, and Josie Rourke’s production and the performances of Dominic West and Janet McTeer at Donmar Theatre have the sophisticated polish it needs.

Le Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil, two professional seducers, ex-lovers, glamorous, intelligent, urbane and vicious, have first-class degrees in the art of sexual manipulation. Merteuil, keen to have her revenge on her lover for deserting her, asks Valmont to seduce the lover’s bride-to-be, Cécile de Volanges, who has only just left a convent. She offers a night of love in return.

So certain is Valmont of his success that he also offers to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy). He relishes the idea of seducing a woman celebrated for her religious fervour, her happy marriage and her strict morals. The virginal Cécile de Volanges (Morfydd Clark) proves an easy conquest. The real battle, however, is between him and Merteuil.

The Marquise, totally confident of her allure, knows women have to be inventive to survive in a man’s world where reputation is quickly lost. She controls Valmont by denying him her favours.

Valmont, a compulsive womaniser, is redeemable. Merteuil is not. The play ends with her looking forward to the 1790s, wondering what the decade will bring. I do not think there is any doubt in the audience’s mind that she will be among the first to be guillotined.

Charles Dodgson, Oxford don, obsessed with mathematics, logic and photographing little girls, published the most famous children’s book in 1865. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been staged, filmed, televised and endlessly analysed ever since.

Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris at the National Theatre use the novel as a springboard for their digital version, which is aimed at teenagers texting on their smartphones and playing computer games online. Audiences brought up on Lewis Carroll’s text and John Tenniel’s drawings are liable to be very disappointed. had its premiere in Manchester in July and the present production is based on the response of Manchester schoolchildren to that try-out. The show remains a work in progress. Alice (Lois Chimimba) is a mixed-race child. Her parents are separated. She’s in trouble at school, bullied by the girls and the headmistress. The real world is grey and shabby. Her imagined world is surreal and garish.

It is Rufus Norris’s production, Rae Smith’s set, the computer graphics and projections by 59 Productions, plus the weird costumes by Katrina Lindsay and the strong language that audiences will be talking about.

The Caterpillar’s body is wittily played by a number of actors. But the performance that stands out is Anna Francolini’s amusing caricature of the headmistress; and most parents are going to side with her when she confiscates Alice’s smartphone.