Liaisons by Candlelight

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theatre
'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' photos by Joan Marcus
'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' photos by Joan Marcus

The latest Broadway rendition of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an invigorating, lively take on the period costume drama, which is ripe with robust games of seduction and is enhanced this time by sumptuous lighting from veteran, Tony Award-winning LD Mark Henderson.

Given the secretive dealings of the two main characters, bold rogue Le Vicomte de Valmont (Liev Schreiber) and his unrequited paramour in crime La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), the often-subdued look of the show parallels the furtive nature of the narrative.

Between 80 and 90 candles located on five chandeliers as well as standing and hand carried candelabras help give this real-time rendition the feeling of an historical film.

An occasional arc sourced light was used to emulate daylight in a scene

Real Candles

These are real candles not LED replicas, which raises any number of technical issues, from the flame staying lit to wax dripping down. With a show that runs over 2.5 hours, the candles have to survive the duration of the production, plus a little longer, as the chandeliers are lit prior to the audience arriving at the theatre. Those chandeliers are raised and lowered from scene to scene, depending upon the time of day represented, with the candles providing nocturnal illumination.

“The stage management/props teams in London and in New York did their research and sourced the candles that could burn for the length of the show,” Henderson explains to PLSN. “The chandeliers do indeed come in to different trims for different scenes. There was an initial concern that the candles would extinguish as the chandeliers moved, but the speed of the travel is quite slow, and so that did not become an issue.”

Dripping wax has certainly been an issue, therefore the cups under each candle were enlarged to catch any falling wax, but occasionally there can be a problem if any candles are not upright in the holders. “Draughts and air conditioning have played a part and are still an ongoing problem as these affect the rate of burning of the candles and add to the possibility of the wax building up on one side of the candle and then overflowing,” adds Henderson. “It is a very difficult science to manage and seems to be different every night, causing the stage management and props teams an ongoing issue.” The LD says that while fire codes seem to vary from country to country and even region to region, he stresses that common sense is the major code that they adhere to.

LED tape was used as footlights to uplight the cast

Sculpting the Mood

There are plenty of theatrical lights utilized to sculpt the mood of each scene while making the audience believe the illumination is mostly natural. Henderson reports that they have two rows of LED tape (RGBWW) across the front edge of the stage “acting as discreet footlights.” Tungsten Source Fours come from a straight angle along the mezzanine rail, while at the end of that rail sit a number of Source Four minis; MR16 source fixtures with shutters. Four VL1000s sit over the stage with two more out front on the FOH truss, which also carries two more VL1000 Arc units. Two additional Arc units hang above the stage. “There are then various booms FOH and onstage with a mixture of Source Fours, Fresnels and Pars,” adds the LD. They are running on an ETC ION 2000 console.

As Henderson notes, the majority of the show, which achieves a naturalistic look through its lighting design, is lit from below or from straight on. “There are fixtures at eyeline level all around the mezzanine rail,” he says. “The low level ‘under the eyeline’ angle is very flattering. I think the key to making it feel natural was to use multiple tungsten sources all at very low intensity creating a glow very similar in texture and tone to candlelight. The multiple sources helped to reduce the shadows, which was very important, as the angle of the lights meant that the majority are falling on to the back wall of the set after passing the actors. I think the shadows could have been very distracting and annoying, and so by using many sources this helped wash them out.”

Tungsten VL1000's were used as overhead key lights

The four tungsten moving lights overhead above the stage are used to help key on the actors as they stand to the side of the stage and face their fellow performers. Henderson says that they are used at a very low intensity and blended in with all the other tungsten lights. There are also the “footlights” at the front edge of the stage that add a low angle and low intensity glow, “and they are then used in a different way to give a slightly ethereal quality to the scene changes,” he says.

In collaborating with director Josie Rourke, Henderson agreed that they should keep and enhance the candlelit feel of the show, which is a strong visual component within the production. “We wanted it to be sumptuous and atmospheric,” he says. “At the very outset, we were set on using real candles as the main light source, seemingly, and so we then all worked together as a team to help make that seem the case. We did some initial experiments very early on back in London to see if it would be possible to just use candles without any additional lighting, but I think we soon realized that that was unrealistic and not really what was going to be best for the production.”

From that point, they faced the challenge of creating an onstage world where the audience would perceive the show as being lit by candlelight, despite all of the other technology involved. “In tech rehearsal, we started trying to use as little conventional theatre lighting as possible and then built up the picture from there as we needed,” recalls Henderson. “For the ‘country’ scenes, we wanted to add an element that helped make us feel that there was a world beyond. To achieve this, we introduced some cooler tones breaking into the room as if there was daylight/exterior beyond.”

While Henderson and his team had the chance to test out their lighting approach in London, where this production began, transferring the show to the Booth Theatre on Broadway still presented its own set of challenges.

“The show originated in the Donmar
Theatre, which is a much smaller and intimate space,” notes Henderson. “The audience is extremely close to the stage and actors, and so the light levels can be very conservative. The major challenge was transferring the show to the larger proscenium space that is the Booth Theatre whilst retaining the intimate and atmospheric feel. I tried to recreate the positions and the angles from the Donmar in the Booth, and so utilized the mezzanine rail position a lot and some side mezzanine rail positions, which we slightly reconfigured to allow us to fix multiple small tungsten
fixtures.”

Henderson feels that every show is a learning process, which makes his vocation so exciting and interesting. “Whilst there are, of course, elements of experience that you can draw from, it is never an exact science, and there are things that surprise you that either don’t work or work better than you thought,” he elaborates. “There are also other elements that you can develop and expand on as you go through the process, which is always interesting, challenging and enlightening.”

The final results with Les Liaisons Dangereuses clearly shine on Broadway, although metaphorically rather than literally. The discreet lighting to many of the scenes, particularly the moments of seduction, add to the allure of the amorously charged tale that is being presented live.