Celebrated playwright Christopher Hampton sure has a way with words, not all of them his own, writes Matthew Westwood
HERE’S a conversation-starter for the dinner table tonight: who would be best as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons? Who best resembles the brazenly manipulative, devilishly charming, sexy-ashell Vicomte de Valmont in the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and adapted for stage and screen by Christopher Hampton?
In the 1988 film, John Malkovich virtually defined the role with that famous sneer of his, giving a performance as seductive as it was creepy. Or imagine Alan Rickman, who created Valmont on stage at its premiere in 1985 with that famous cut-glass accent of his, giving a performance as seductive as it was creepy.
Hampton declares that he could never make a comparison between these two leading men, but of course he can’t help himself. ‘‘ Rickman brought real authority and chilliness and beautiful phrasing of the language,’’ he says. ‘‘ John was much more child-like, emotional, sort of naive, kind of impulsive. The part will take both of those interpretations.’’
Hampton has not yet met the cast who will be doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Sydney Theatre Company next month, so we can picture the leading players for him. Pamela Rabe as Mme la Marquise de Merteuil, the scheming and vengeful aristocrat who gets her comeuppance.
And Hugo Weaving as the infamous Valmont, with that rakish air of his, giving a performance . . . Well, you can imagine.
The point is, actors love playing these roles: the combination of ancien regime refinement and depravity, not to mention the opportunity to dress up in powdered wigs and opulent costumes. (Although Hampton has heard of a Eurotrash production with the characters dressed as rabbits, which ‘‘ seemed to me a rather oversimplified view of the play’’.)
‘‘ I think it’s fair to years,’’ Hampton says, say, after all these ‘‘ that actors really like being in my stuff . . . I write for actors, and I like actors. I think there are quite a lot of dramatic writers who are suspicious of actors, or don’t really trust them. I really like actors.’’
Hampton has written original plays but he is perhaps better known for his dramatised versions of novels. So good is he at adaptation — he won an Oscar for his Dangerous Liaisons screenplay — that he’s a virtual advertisement for natural selection. Pop him in the soil of great literary characters and situations, and watch the variegated dramatic flowers bloom.
He has written the screenplay from Ian Mcewen’s novel Atonement, adapted his play The Talking Cure as the movie A Dangerous Method (it stars Keira Knightley and the hotter than hot Michael Fassbender), made an unproduced script for David Lean of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and is making a movie — being filmed at Seal Rocks in NSW — of Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers, with Naomi Watts and Robyn Wright.
A passion for history, languages and aristocratic porn led him to Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses when he was a teenager at Oxford. He decided he’d rather write about the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, Retif de la Bretonne and Diderot than about Voltaire. ‘‘ A lot of the very best writers in France at the time were writing pornography,’’ Hampton says. ‘‘ I had to get permission from the vice-chancellor. Each of these books was locked in a separate cupboard in the modern languages library.
‘‘ There was this revolution of puritans coming up at the same time these literary minds were thinking in terms of conquering new areas of sexuality. It’s an observable phenomena. I instinctively feel that one had something to do with the other, but I don’t know what it could be . . . Laclos sort of fits into that pantheon.’’
Hampton sort of resembles — although discretion doesn’t permit one to inquire too closely — one of his 18th-century libertines. The grey hair is worn aristocratically long, and the face has the rumpled topography of slept-upon sheets. Wearing a frockcoat, he would make a convincing impression, perhaps, as old Valmont himself.
He was born in the Azores, where his father was a marine telecommunications engineer, and spent part of his childhood in Alexandria, before being sent to public schools back home in England. While still at
Oxford, he had his first dramatic success with his play When Did You Last See My Mother?, described in a Guardian profile as a ‘‘ precocious exploration of the angst and selflaceration of adolescent homosexuality’’. It was produced by the Oxford University Dramatic Society and then discovered by legendary agent Peggy Ramsay, who got it put on at the Royal Court in London.
Ramsay insisted on Hampton turning Les Liaisons Dangereuses into a play. In the mid70s, he took the idea to the National Theatre, which turned it down on the grounds that a novel in which the principal characters never meet — Laclos wrote it as a series of letters, mainly between Merteuil and Valmont — would never work on stage. Hampton said, ‘‘ Well, I plan to make them meet.’’
He eventually wrote it for the Royal Shakespeare Company — directed by Howard Davies, with Lindsay Duncan as Merteuil, Juliet Stevenson as Madame de Tourvel and Rickman as Valmont — and it went like an express train. After opening at the Other Place, the RSC’S tiny studio theatre, it transferred to the Barbican in London, then the West End, then to Broadway. It ran for 1800 performances, Hampton says, and ‘‘ then came the miracle of the film, which shouldn’t exist at all’’.
About ‘‘ three major studios’’ wanted the film rights. The RSC wanted to go with one of them, but Hampton preferred the small studio Lorimar, which offered him a coproducer role. Then the Oscar-winning director of Amadeus, Milos Forman, announced he was going to make a film of Laclos’s book. Prospective directors backed away from Hampton’s project, not wanting to compete against the great Forman. Hampton suggested Stephen Frears, at that point a director of small art-house British films such as My Beautiful Laundrette.
‘‘ I had to guarantee to Lorimar that the film would come out first, before Milos’s,’’ Hampton recalls. ‘‘ That’s what we did. I wrote the script in about three weeks, blood coming out of my ears . . . I gave Stephen the script on January 1, 1988, and it was in the cinemas in November. Amazing. Sometimes I think it’s much the best way to make films, not all this agonising and tinkering and bringing in other writers.’’ (Forman’s film, Valmont, starred Colin Firth in the title role and Annette Bening as Merteuil.)
Hampton’s play and film struck a chord in the 1980s era of ‘‘ institutionalised greed’’, he says. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three, including Hampton’s for best adapted screenplay.
He is cautious about predicting the story’s resonance for today’s audiences; but of course in Laclos’s day, it was one of those cultural flagwavers that presaged the French Revolution. Like Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro, and Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, it depicted the decadence and odious privileges of the ancien regime. Laclos believed his book was one that would ‘‘ resound through history’’ and, indeed, Hampton ends his play with a stage direction: the unmistakable silhouette of the guillotine on the wall.
‘‘ Andre Malraux said it’s the kind of book that tells you that this can’t go on much longer. In fact, Laclos was very active in the French Revolution. An interesting story to do would be: why did he not get executed? Because he was the speechwriter for Philippe Egalite, the democratic royal. Laclos was thrown in jail. They shaved his hair off, telling him he was up for it the next morning, and they let him out. Maybe he had the whammy on someone. But he wound up as one of Napoleon’s generals.’’
Would Hampton have found himself thrown into the Bastille on charges of grand literary theft? He has certainly helped himself liberally to works that are not his: not only Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Atonement, but also Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, Collette’s Cheri and Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey, which Hampton adapted and filmed as Carrington.
How does he answer the charge? ‘‘ I don’t really mind if it’s theft or not theft,’’ Hampton says. ‘‘ Brecht always said, ‘ If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.’ ’’
The name on the poster outside the cinema or theatre isn’t important, he declares. ‘‘ The business of creating an evening in the theatre that is effective and works with an audience is so rare and difficult, it doesn’t matter who the hell did it, really.’’
With his upcoming film, A Dangerous Method, Hampton has made a screenplay from his play that was originally a screenplay, adapted from a book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. David Cronenberg has directed it with Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud and Knightley as the pioneering woman psychoanalyst (and Jung’s lover) Spielrein.
‘‘ It was originally written as a screenplay for 20th Century Fox and Julia Roberts, and they didn’t want to do it,’’ Hampton says. ‘‘ So I asked them for permission to turn it into a play, which they gave me. David Cronenberg just read the play and called me out of the blue. He said, ‘ Do you think this would make a film?’ I said, ‘ Funny you should say that.’ But both of us agreed, weirdly enough, that the play was much better than the screenplay. So the movie is much closer to the play.’’
With Les Liaisons Dangereuses the task of adaptation was one of complete reinvention: turning Laclos’s epistolary novel into scenes, dialogue and dramatic incidents. Melbourne Theatre Company last did it in 2004, with Simon Phillips directing Josephine Byrnes, Marcus Graham and Asher Keddie. In Sydney, Sam Strong’s production, designed by Dale Ferguson, has been described as a stripped-back version that will thrust Hampton’s rapier-sharp lines into our own times.
‘‘ In my observation, plays always work when the audience knows more than the characters, and some of the characters know more than some of the other characters,’’ Hampton says. ‘‘ There’s always a sort of complicity that builds up in the room that is very satisfying.’’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sydney Theatre Company, from March 31. A Dangerous Method opens in cinemas nationally on March 29.
Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving, left, will appear in the STC’S Les Liaisons
Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich, above, in the 1988 film