(Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 22 September 2017)
It is the age of Restoration: of rakes, rogues and wenches, frock coats, billowing cuffs and absurdly large periwigs. Charles II has been on the throne for fifteen years and the age is at its pleasure-drunk apex. Bands of drunken young noblemen riot through taverns and theatres, shaking off the privations of their Puritan youth. Their figurehead is none other than the most lascivious, most scurrilous, most impudent nobleman of all: the Earl of Rochester. He has just been allowed back to court after a previous prank went wrong (accidentally reading out an extremely crude poem in front of the Queen’s visiting relatives), and he is determined to make up for lost time.
Rochester (Dominic Cooper) is surrounded by parasites, and pale imitations as he blazes his way through the petticoats of London. His inner circle includes the jobbing playwright George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), the dissipated nobleman Charles Sackville (Richard Teverson) and the would-be spark Billy Downs (Will Merrick). But they aren’t exactly what Rochester would call friends. He doesn’t believe in weak sentiment and he is too proud and self-aware a character to give soliloquies begging for love from an audience.
His prologue is a bored, defiant monologue, which I’ve quoted before:
Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. … That is my prologue. Nothing in rhyme. No protestations of modesty. You were not expecting that, I hope. I am John Wilmot. Second Earl of Rochester. And I do not want you to like me.
But the result, of course, is that you don’t just like Rochester – you love him. From this moment, you fall under his spell just as surely as the foolish young Downs. And your fate, like Rochester’s, is sealed.
Rochester’s problems begin when he starts caring about what people think of him. First, he meets the ingenue actress Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond), who is starting out on the stage and is hampered by the overblown acting styles of the period. Something about this ugly duckling captures Rochester’s attention and, being a shrewd judge of the stage, he decides to become Mrs Barry’s patron. Unfortunately, being Rochester, he can’t leave it at that, but he can’t be his usual libertine self with Mrs Barry: on the contrary, he finds to his horror that he wants her to think well of him. As he wrestles with this unfamiliar feeling, he finds himself equally disturbed by the fact his former friend and protector, King Charles II (Jasper Britton) is losing interest in Rochester as his court jester. The king has been roistering and rollicking for fifteen years and he’s beginning to feel the need to settle down a bit. Rochester doesn’t do him any favours, and so the king begins to wonder whether he shouldn’t withdraw some of his support for this provocative rake.
For most people, the point when they begin to care is the point when they begin to heal, but not Rochester. We watch him as his carefully-constructed veneer begins to flake away, revealing the thin and naked creature beneath. Dismissed by Mrs Barry as she grows into her success, and renounced by the king, Rochester finds himself having to scrabble back to the one place he can always turn: the home of his long-suffering, resigned wife Elizabeth Malet (Alice Bailey Johnson).
The cast do a splendid job. Those performing bit-parts are actually some of the most amusing: Cornelius Booth is equally wonderful as the actor Harry Harris and in a briefer cameo as the artist Jacob Huysmans, wrestling with the problem of a sitter who’d rather be painted with a monkey than with his spouse. Jasper Britton’s Charles II is rambunctious and practical by turn, a maturing man who begins to doubt the wisdom of being seen with the carousing companions of his youth. And Ophelia Lovibond impressed me as the inexperienced but determined Mrs Barry, struggling to find her feet in the theatrical world but convinced that a glorious future does await. Of course, the one you most remember is Cooper himself as the world-weary Earl – ruthlessly intelligent, bored of the world around him and able to meet it only with contempt. He lures us in with his disdain, telling us he doesn’t want us, doesn’t need us, and yet each of his actions gives the lie to his words: the one thing this rake needs is an audience, for without it he crumbles into insignificance. Cooper does a magnificent job of showing us both Rochester’s cruelty and his humanity. This play is one of those that would absolutely crumble without a fine performance in the main role, but The Libertine is in the safest of hands.
Perhaps the only thing that keeps this play from being absolutely perfect is the end, which shows us Rochester’s decline at a brisker pace and in a vaguer fashion than the film version. The conclusion, with the scathing Earl brought back to love of God, feels rather like the end of an opera: the final scene in which the mundane business of tying up ends is done swiftly, so as not to try the audience’s patience. After having following Rochester through his odyssey of sin, I felt that I would have liked to see more of a struggle to face the greater questions of life and death – I can’t help feeling that Rochester, more than your average debauched hero, would have raged with fury against the dying of the light. But that’s Stephen Jeffreys’s play, not the production, that left me questioning.
I should add that simply going to the theatre to see this is an experience. The Haymarket is a jewel box at the best of times and sets off the gorgeous 17th-century costumes. Silks and velvets are everywhere, and one of my personal highlights was having a glimpse of the actor Harry Harris (Cornelius Booth) in full Baroque regalia, complete with plumed helmet, mock antique armour and flared tonnelet. The costume designer Caroline Waterman has done herself proud. I should also say a special word about the wigs, because I always know a play’s going to be good when they take such details seriously. I’m delighted to say that not only does The Libertine’s crew include a Wig Designer (Richard Mawbey), there’s also a Head of Wigs (Julie Burnett) and a Wigs Assistant (Emily Grove). Wigs are big business here, from the fussy periwigs to the characters’ ‘real’ hair, such as Cooper’s mussed and devil-may-care locks tugged back into a ribbon. Speaking of unusual job titles, I was slightly disappointed not to see ‘Monkey Wrangler’ listed among the crew, but we can’t have everything.
So, if you fancy a scurrilous, witty Restoration comedy – that’s definitely not suitable for children – complete with lots of naughtiness and aesthetic delight – head on down to the Haymarket as soon as you can, and savour this story of a man who was certainly mad and bad, but in the end dangerous only to himself.