The Libertine opens with a disarmingly frank prologue. “You will not like me,” says Dominic Cooper’s Second Earl of Rochester, addressing us directly. It’s more of a challenge than a promise, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that while much of his behaviour over the next two and a half hours is either despicable or frustrating or both, the same can’t be said for the man himself. Charming, witty and – let’s be honest – pretty easy on the eyes, this is one anti-hero we can’t help but fall for.
Stephen Jeffreys’ play tells the true story of John Wilmot, a 17th century gentleman and writer, who wasted his considerable talent on a life of drunken debauchery, before dying at just 33. While his wife kept out of the way in the country, Rochester and his ‘merry gang’ – among them the playwright George Etherege, who would go on to immortalise his friend in The Man of Mode – enjoyed the pleasures of the royal court and the frequent company of prostitutes, whilst lurching from the inn to the playhouse and back again.
Following in the footsteps of John Malkovich and Johnny Depp, Dominic Cooper is magnetic as the charismatic Earl; it’s easy to see why all the other characters – male and female – are so attracted to him. Rochester’s wordy, witty lines trip smoothly off his tongue, and he has a roguish twinkle that softens us towards him, even in his very worst moments. The supporting cast are no less impressive, with brilliant comic performances from, among others, Mark Hadfield as Etherege, Jasper Britton as King Charles II and Will Barton as the Earl’s brilliantly blunt servant, Alcock.
While the men get drunk and enjoy themselves (not to mention indulging in a good deal of mansplaining), it’s left to the women to provide emotional substance: Ophelia Lovibond as Elizabeth Barry, the feisty actress who captures Rochester’s heart; Alice Bailey Johnson as his long-suffering wife (also called Elizabeth, confusingly) and Nina Toussaint-White as Jane, a prostitute who wants more from him than he’s able to give. Having said that, it’s also the women who get one of the biggest laughs of the night with their song about dildos. I’ll just leave that there…
Tim Shortall’s set, dominated by a huge ornate picture frame, is a work of art in itself. This is a play that’s very aware of the distinction between theatre and life, with the Earl himself persistently demanding ‘truth’, despite spending a good deal of his time escaping reality at the playhouse. This contradiction is hammered home with beautiful simplicity as director Terry Johnson has the characters act out their lives on a raised ‘stage upon a stage’. As a result we end up questioning how much of what we’re seeing from Rochester is the real man and how much is an act – particularly since his wife assures us repeatedly of his redeeming qualities when away from London.
The Libertine is a hugely entertaining play, full of bawdy humour, in which the focus is very much on the Earl of Rochester’s debauchery, more than his complicated psychology or his talent as a writer (in fact, the only poetry of his we get to hear is the naughty stuff he writes to annoy the king). Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is a young man with everything to live for, and his rapid decline, which ushers in a sudden shift in mood towards the end of Act 2, means the play unexpectedly ends on a bit of a dejected note – and leaves us wondering why we should care so much about the self-inflicted fate of a man we weren’t even supposed to like in the first place.