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By Susheel Gokarakonda
Dangerous Liaisons, set to run at the Playhouse theatre from 2nd – 5th May tells a chilling story of seduction, passion and betrayal, set in 1930s France. The play has been adapted by Christina DroIlas from a controversial Renaissance novel that was banned for more than a century. I visited the rehearsal studio to try and understand what processes could turn this script into a large scale production. I observed the preparations for the press preview – a highly charged scene, between Madame de Tourvel, played by Ella Waldman, and The Vincomte de Valmont, played by Ziad Samaha.
The freedom with the script gives director Christina Drollas the opportunity to play around with language as she charts the characters’ development. The actors themselves were very keen to establish a way in which each scene could work in terms of the emotional balancing. The rehearsal has a very open feel to it as between them they try to iron out changes in body movements, facial expressions and vocal emphasis. There is a huge amount of emotionally driven, intimate conversation in this production the actors’ strategy therefore has work out how Tourvel and Valmont would react to each other realistically before they thought about how it could be presented to an audience. The scene noticeably progressed under this thought process. Christina proposed slight shifts in moods and attitudes for the characters to push for greater contrasts and to help create more acute tensions for the audience. Ziad Samaha‘s performance became steadily more engaging as his character attempts to seductively calculate and pre-empt the behaviour of Tourvel, often leading him to visibly flounder as he unexpectedly loses control of the situation. The pace of the scene ebbs and flows convincingly as different lines were made more or less distinct. There is a chilling sense of unease as Samaha moves from being playfully charming, bashful and alluring to unpleasantly desperate, proclaiming to a wide-eyed Tourvel “I don’t want to possess you, I only want to be worthy of you.”
In the early stages of the rehearsal process, the actors discussed possible back stories for the characters as a way of understanding their motives and reactions. I spoke to Ella Waldman about her views on how the production was shaping up and the kinds of rehearsal techniques that have been useful for her. Ella is used to performing in lots of theatres around Oxford, from the intimate space of the Burton Taylor studio, where every slight frown can be scrutinised by the audience, to the picturesque space of Magdalen College gardens, as well as large scale productions such as Dorian Gray and Mephisto at the Playhouse in the previous two terms. Having to perform in such different spaces and in very different types of productions has meant that she thinks very carefully about the rehearsal techniques that are appropriate for each production. As a literature student it is obvious that her first approach is to work out what her character’s function in the story is. Whether or not they play a pivotal role to the development of the plot, or whether her role adds a purely dramatic dimension for the audience. “For this particular production, the exploration of my character has developed in quite distinct stages. I actually researched this play and novel very thoroughly before I started rehearsing – it has a very long and turbulent history. It’s very important to understand the contemporary mindset so that you force yourself to think automatically from that point of view, it’s essential to avoid being anachronistic. One of the difficulties we’ve had with this play has been trying to make some of the female characters have stronger voices – they can be annoyingly pathetic at times and we wanted to make sure they had a forceful impact on the dynamic of the play. The other most important thing was to get comfortable with the other actors in the production.” It sounds a very obvious thing to say, but if you’re playing someone’s lover you really don’t want to look awkward and uncomfortable when you’re hugging them or putting your hand on their leg – if the timing of exchanges between you is all wrong then the whole scene falls apart.”