John Malkovich Wants You to Brush Up On Your French

The award-winning actor directs “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”—in French—at the Lansburgh Theatre.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Twenty-four years after John Malkovich starred in the movie Dangerous Liaisons, the actor is directing a French-language production of the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, based on the drama by Christopher Hampton, which in turn was taken from a novel by Choderlos de Laclos. The show comes to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre December 6 through 9, following a run earlier this year at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Atelier.

The new version of the story—about the romantic manipulations of immoral aristocrats Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil—fuses 18th-century culture with modern trappings, so the actors wear corsets and wigs over jeans (Malkovich also helped design the costumes) and text one another love notes and photos. “The book was written when the French had nothing to do but seduce people,” says Théâtre de l’Atelier artistic director Laura Pels, “so it’s historical in terms of presenting the way people lived, but in a modern way.”

Malkovich auditioned more than 300 student actors before selecting a troupe whose members were all under 25, in keeping with the ages of the novel’s characters. While Hampton’s play was nominated for a Tony Award when it ran on Broadway in 1987, Pels says the adaptation is truer to the novel’s spirit: “The French is very saucy, so it would be a pity to have it in English. It’s not that it has to be done in French, but it has to be done in a way that gives a sense of what motivated these people. I don’t think Malkovich would have done it in any other language.”

Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Dec. 6 to 9 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. Tickets ($60 to $75) at shakespearetheatre.org.

This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.