Ghosts, at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank Theatre, offers a directorially flawed but admirably faithful reproduction of a classic text. A wall away in the Lawler black-box playpen next door, where local theatre troupes are gratefully given more rope, a production of the well-trodden Dangerous Liaisons is, perhaps surprisingly, even more allegiant. And much more fun.
Melbourne “queer collective” Little Ones Theatre boasts, unabashedly, “camp, kitsch and erotically charged theatrical events”. It delivers on that, at least. Christopher Hampton’s pert parable on power and sexual politics (after Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 French text) — after screenplays faithful (Hampton’s 1988 film adaption) and less so (the 1998 teen take Cruel Intentions) — remains delicious. And while director Stephen Nicolazzo spices it up with sheer costumes and gender-bending roleplay, it’s the text, in its sanctity, that shines.
The twist in an almost-all-female cast is to have famed lothario the Vicomte de Valmont played by a woman, opposite his/her beloved foil the Marquise de Merteuil. It’s effective, perhaps, in simply how little it detracts. It recasts the power play with subtle impact; the passages on a female’s lot in life become more pertinent, other scenes less so. There’s heat between the protagonists, certainly, and the heartbreak is as palpable.
Valmont (Janine Watson) and Merteuil (Alexandra Aldrich) play off each other bewitchingly; Aldrich is a rubber-faced comic gem, while Watson, pantiloon-clad with locks pulled back, offers carnal aggression with lingering morality in the perfect transexual package. All the cast is good — particularly Amanda McGregor as the other woman Cécile and Joanne Sutton as the gruff, cigar-chomping (and scene-stealing) aunt Madame de Rosemonde. Tom Dent can’t help but look out of place as the only bloke, playing an insipid Danceny, Cécile’s courtier.
There were too many flubs on opening night. But there’s a high degree of difficulty in the linguistic gymnastics and the show will inevitably be tighter now. If the rhythm is mostly there, the tone is a little uneven. Even in this sort of environment, a few of the character ticks and vocal shifts jarred. Some of this will be ironed out over the run, but there’s the sense the performers don’t always make the right choices.
Still, while Nicolazzo dials up the camp to 11 at times — boisterous karaoke sessions punctuate the drama — he knows when to dial it back down. The pathos remains. The restraint, bizarrely, is more spectacular than the glitter explosion. Eugyeene Teh’s set is suitably shiny — a mirrorball floor, gold drapes and furnishings — and his costumes (with the fabulously named Tessa Leigh Wolffenbuttel Pitt) splendidly sumptuous. Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting is positively tasteful in comparison.
This is an ambitious work to take on. Perhaps too ambitious for this program; MTC’s Neon festival of independent theatre should ideally promote new talent and new work, not just one or the other. At two hours and 15 minutes (with interval), this schtick — challenging schtick, but schtick all the same — will wear you down. The second act, at least, moves with more pace.
At its best, Little Ones’ Dangerous Liaisons presents the opportunity to look at these characters differently. That we reach roughly the same conclusions, perhaps, is both the success and failure of the work. It’s still an altogether more entertaining night at the theatre than the big boys presenting next door.
Featured image by Sarah Walker