Stephen Jeffreys’ ‘The Libertine’, currently playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for a limited ten week run, tells the story of the truly remarkable life of ‘John Wilmot’, the second Earl of Rochester. From a young man with a penchant for whores and booze to a withered, dissatisfied husband banished from all he loves, we see the slow downward spiral that not only led to his death but the tales that made him the infamous Earl.
Presented as a restoration play, the piece creates the post Cromwell world of excess and debauchery excellently. The audience are very much involved from the dawn of the show as ‘Wilmot’ (Dominic Cooper) proclaims ‘You will not like me’. Following in the footsteps of John Malkovich and Johnny Depp is a tall order indeed, but Cooper is profoundly entrancing as the rebellious and lustful poet. There is an air of serenity about him that lends itself beautifully to the role. Calm yet unhinged and dangerous, like a leopard preparing to pounce, he prowls the stage, making his decline into physical deterioration all the more sorrowful to watch.
The fact that a man who couldn’t stand his wife and worked his way through every brothel in London (not to mention being indirectly responsible for the death of a young spark, played by Will Merrick) can be the hero of a play is a testament to not only Jeffreys’ sensational writing, but the life and times of the man himself.
The piece deals with not only the breakdown of a marriage but also the separation of a city and country life, the division of the classes and the theatrical worlds place in society both today and in the seventeenth century.
The cast are extremely strong, with wonderful support from Ophelia Lovibond as the Joan Crawford-esque actor ‘Elizabeth Barry’ and Jasper Britton who plays ‘Charles ll’ expertly with pomp and valour. Notable mentions must go to Richard Teverson and Lizzie Roper for their excellent stage presence.
All in all this is a surprisingly funny piece which gives curious insight into the aftermath of puritanism and the birth of the restoration period, in which entertainment and theatre truly began to speak to the people. It’s an interesting watch, and I found myself entranced by the piece (particularly the gaudy opening of the second act), and although I wasn’t particularly moved in any way I had an enjoyable evening.
Reviewed by Jimmy Richards
Photo: Alastair Muir
THE LIBERTINE plays at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 3 December 2016. Get tickets