12 June 2014 at 9.25pm | Comment on this article
Whether through Dangerous Liaisons (1988) or Cruel Intentions (1999), Laclos’ 1782 novel of depravity, desire and decay sunk its talons deep into late-20th-century consciousness. But far away from Hollywood’s Glenn Close/John Malkovich’s white-wigged sniping and the Ryan Philippe/Sarah Michelle Gellar pout-out, there was another adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses that emerged from the last days of the Soviet Union, far darker and more disturbing.
German playwright Heiner Müller lived all but nine years of his life under a dictatorship. Born in 1929, a few years before Hitler’s rise to power, most of his years were spent in East Germany, where his plays were frequently censored or banned. He died in 1995, six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though his works are – in the UK at least – still overshadowed by those of his compatriot Bertolt Brecht, their uncompromising, uncomfortable insight makes Müller one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century.
Quartett (1981) is Müller’s adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses. It’s often mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, that went on to make it big on West End and Broadway and eventually become Dangerous Liaisons. But the two adaptations are poles apart. Hampton smoothly (and superbly) crafted a straightforward historical drama. But Müller saw something further in the insatiable libertinism of Laclos’ two central characters. He created a contemporary parable in which the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil become the ultimate nihilists.
Quartett has a single setting: 'Drawing room before the French Revolution. Air raid shelter after World War III'. There is a cast of just two. Valmont and Merteuil complete the quartet through a perverse game of role-play, impersonating the only two other characters – Müller's genius interpretation of the structure of the original novel, written through an exchange of letters. Müller's language is reptilian, bitter, angry. But it is the stripped-bare depiction of a meritless power desperately indulging in pointless cruelty that really shocks.
In his preface to the play Müller describes Quartett as ‘a reflection on the problem of terrorism, using material which on the surface has nothing to do with it.’ It’s characteristic understatement for a work that pursues to its absolute extreme the consequence of power applied without humanity. Müller's is an uncompromising message that continues to resonate violently in today's world.
Italian composer Luca Francesconi was drawn moth-like to Quartett, and in 2011 adapted the play into an award-winning opera of the same title. He explains: ‘People in the West are spoiled. We live with our privilege without realizing that it’s not sustainable… When you go to the theatre you feel very safe sitting in your seat. You watch something and there is a kind of wall of protection – an apparently normal story with two people, a man and a woman. Then, step by step, you understand that you are a part of what you are watching. You are not safe.’
The Royal Opera's new production of Quartett runs 18–28 June 2014. Tickets are still available.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mr Stefan Sten Olsson, and is a co-production between The Royal Opera, Opéra de Rouen and London Sinfonietta.