‘When Innocence, Beauty, and Wit do conspire
To betray, and engage, and inflame my Desire,
Why should I decline what I cannot avoid?
And let pleasing Hope by base Fear be destroyed?’
This is a stanza from the poem ‘To This Moment A Rebel’ by John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester – the reckless ‘Libertine’ of Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 play.
Within these few lines Rochester reveals himself as someone at the mercy of his sexual and emotional whims, but also one whose self-indulgent striving for happiness through fleeting moments of sexual joy covers a darker side to his personality – emotional emptiness and narcissism, self-loathing perhaps. Jeffreys’ script seeks out these extremities.
Rochester’s is an irresistible story: the darling of the Restoration court, he revelled in the favour of Charles II. His life served as metaphor for the end of Cromwellian 17th century austerity. All the safety catches were off. Here was a man with education, creative competence, position, money and looks, but with just one hitch – he was acutely aware of artifice, and was hell-bent on bringing it down, even at enormous cost to himself.
Rochester was a man briefly thrown in the Tower for abducting his future wife from her grandfather’s carriage; who wrote a pornographic play for the king and was leader of the ‘Merry Gang’, a posse of privileged posh boys who liked to go out on the razz. Jeffreys explores Rochester’s excesses through the Court, the theatre, the whorehouse and finally his pitiful return to a neglected home. Rochester remains, self destructively, in a state of arrested development, while it is left to the women around him to eventually call the shots.
Pronouncing to the audience in the prologue that “You will not like me,” and “I do not want you to like me – the gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled,” Dominic Cooper’s Rochester proceeded to bring a ‘straight’ swarthiness to the role. While there was no doubting his taste for the ladies, there was little of the real Rochester’s alleged bi-sexual, narcissistic side on show here.
Cooper was given strong support in Jasper Britton’s depiction of an informal and candid Charles II and Alice Bailey Johnson’s heartfelt portrayal of the Duke’s long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Mallet. Richard Teverson brought much-needed levity to the proceedings as the periwigged Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex and there were eye-catching performances from Nina Toussaint-White as the voluptuous prostitute Jane, and Will Barton as Alcock, Rochester’s aide.
The play hinges largely on Rochester’s relationship with the actress Lizzie Barry (Ophelia Lovibond), who he takes under his wing as a protégé in a new realist style of acting. Their fates in opposite trajectory, it was a shame that the chemistry between the two failed to flare until the latter part of the play when Barry realises the power of her own talents, and calls a halt to Rochester’s attentions.
Rochester’s story is littered with downward moments, his own rake’s progress – none more so than his fall from grace and banishment from Court when his young and over-enthusiastic fellow rake Billy Downs (Will Merrick) meets an untimely end and Rochester flees the scene.
There were amusing cameo scenes, such as a song and dance routine with dildos (from the Duke’s private collection) by the female members of the cast and later, the Merry Gang at Epsom races. There was tangible marital tension when husband and wife sat for their portrait. Rochester eventually substitutes his wife for a monkey, posing as Laureate, as can be seen in his actual portrait by Jacob Huysmans.
Tim Shortall adds a sense of grandeur with his set – dominated by two large low-lit chandeliers. To one side a balconied wall served well as a bawdy house, and at the rear a huge golden frame encapsulated changing backlit scenes and images.
Overall, the piece felt as if it would benefit from one or two more performances to bed in, that timing could be sharpened and the delivery projected at times more directly to the audience. But followers of Dominic Cooper will not be disappointed by his swaggering display of licentiousness and his visceral demise. ★★★☆☆ Simon Bishop 8th September 2016
The Libertine is currently enjoying a successful run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London with bookings being taken until 3rd December. Click here for details