A word of warning; if you are easily offended, this is not the play for you. After all, its protagonist is the ineffable, insatiable John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, the greatest lecher of his time. It is therefore unsurprising that the C word is flung about with gay abandon, that women of negotiable affection ply their trade with enthusiasm all over the stage and that the second act should begin with a catchy little musical number extolling the excellence of dildos – with props. Bawdy it certainly is; in fact, at times The Libertine behaves like the ungodly offspring of the Carry On films and Blackadder.
However, Stephen Jeffreys’ play is more than just a smutty romp. When he wasn’t occupied with the pleasures of the flesh, Rochester was a fearless fighter, a satirist, a respected poet and a great wit. He was also mercurial, choleric and self-destructive, deliberately sabotaging every opportunity that came his way for peace and happiness.
Dominic Cooper, as Rochester, is clear about his difficult nature from the beginning. “You will not like me”, he announces, lounging insouciantly at the front of the stage, wine glass in hand. It’s true that some of his escapades are hard to watch; his cavalier treatment of his long-suffering wife, his reckless baiting of the king, his sudden violent rages, his penchant for drowning his fearsome intellect in wine – you just want to give him a good shaking. And yet, he was wrong. Rochester was possessed of an innate, irresistible charm which Cooper shares, and because of this, we like him. Despite everything he does, everything he says, despite ourselves, we like him. Cooper has found the essence of this tormented dichotomy of a man; his arrogance and his humour, his intellectual snobbery and his humanitarianism, his fortitude and his weakness, his bravery and his cowardice are all tumbled together in one infuriatingly endearing package.
Cooper is well supported by the rest of the cast. With such a strong protagonist you run the risk of the rest of the characters becoming no more than stooges, a colourless backdrop serving principally to throw the star into even greater relief. Not so here; Jeffreys’ script and Terry Johnson’s direction ensure that each character is three dimensional and independent. Rochester’s women are spirited and human, and Alice Bailey Johnson as his wife, Nina Toussaint as his favourite whore and Ophelia Lovibond as actress Elizabeth Barry, his protegée and mistress, take full advantage of the comedy and pathos of their roles. Jasper Britton is excellent as the exasperated monarch King Charles II, goaded out of even his famously easy-going nature by the antics of his friend. Rochester’s friends – the Merry Gang, including Etheridge and a delightfully foppish Sackville – are great fun, and his man-servant Alcock (cue lots of sniggering) brings an entertaining touch of Baldrick to the role.
Tim Shortall’s set is beautifully sumptuous yet simple; with the help of a giant portrait screen at the back, a few simple props and Ben Ormerod’s skilful lighting he takes us from Whitehall to whorehouse in a twinkling.
There is only one jarring note; Rochester’s death bed repentance seems contrary to his character and slightly too pat. Oh it happened all right, but on investigation it appears that his mother took advantage of his final illness to introduce him to that oily, politically opportunistic cleric Gilbert Burnett, who was probably more than a little involved with Rochester’s last writings. It probably suited Jeffreys better to imply that Rochester genuinely regretted his treatment of his wife at the end, but it seems odd to attempt to redeem a character who states clearly at the beginning that he does not want to be liked.
Nevertheless, overall the juxtaposition of jolly Restoration Romp and tragic downward spiral is perfectly balanced, fascinating and very entertaining. Go and see The Libertine, laugh, have a drink and enjoy the bawdy humour. It’s what Rochester would have wanted.
Review by Genni Trickett
Dominic Cooper makes his West End debut as the most notorious rogue in Restoration England, the Earl of Rochester, in this thrilling new production of The Libertine.
Based on true events, Stephen Jeffreys’ sharply written, comic play tells the story of the charismatic poet and playwright with a legendary appetite for excess. A close friend of King Charles II, Rochester’s life of debauchery knows no bounds until headstrong actress Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond) makes an appearance at the Playhouse. Could she finally be the one to tame him?
Multi-award winner Terry Johnson directs an acclaimed cast, including Jasper Britton and Mark Hadfield, for a strictly limited 10 week season from 22 September at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 16 +
Booking Until: 3rd December 2016
Contains language and scenes of sexual nature