Cel­e­brated play­wright Christopher Hamp­ton sure has a way with words, not all of them his own, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines -

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

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