The Libertine portrays the life and milieu of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, poet, lyricist and courtier to King Charles II. The notoriety he earned during his short lifetime and posthumously stems from his canon of erotic poetry and an ultimately self-destructive hedonism. Both Rochester’s early death and surviving writings, for many, characterise the spirit of King Charles II’s reign. Penned by Stephen Jeffreys, The Libertine first debuted in 1994, followed by a run in Chicago with John Malkovich in the title role. It was also the basis for a 2004 film bearing the same name, with Rochester played by Johnny Depp. The Libertine has returned to the stage courtesy of Theatre Royal Bath Productions, at the befitting Theatre Royal Haymarket, with Dominic Cooper as the lead. The impression left of Rochester, the ‘Merry Gang’ and the Restoration as a whole in this rendering could not be more different than on screen.
It opens with a challenging prologue addressed to the audience: ‘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.’ Although the speech obviously holds greater sway on stage than on screen, its delivery oozes a petulant charm and acerbic humour which sets the tone for the rest of the production. However, there is very little chance to dislike the main character. Where Depp’s Rochester is remote and malevolent, Cooper’s Rochester is invitingly sardonic. The subject matter would naturally encourage the exploitation of an alluring picture, which is popular in television, theatre and radio treatments of historical literature and biographies: society’s most-gilded, revelling in the muck of London’s extensive sexual pleasure industry. The production cleverly avoids the pitfalls of cliché in its inventiveness and daring, sidestepping the temptation to present London’s underbelly as oppressive and sadistic. Instead, there is an ever-present aura of Falstaffian revelry; noise, bodies, business transactions and no one on stage finds any of it worth noticing.
Beginning at the period of Rochester’s life when entrenched contrasts had begun to develop, he progressively rebounds between the town and the country, his wife and his mistress. We then see Rochester fighting to find meaning in love and sex, life and art, pleasure and happiness. Consequently he starts drowning in the chasm between the extremes. This was well prepared for in both production and script, but Cooper’s introspective broodiness missed a touch of the anguish that such philosophical crises surely warrant. Each episode of Rochester’s life is given the atmospheric force it deserves, but the overall narrative feels a little fractured and lacks an essential flow. Various escapades in the town, with (in his own words) his ‘most pocky friends’, like the highly powdered and elaborate Sir Charles Sackville (played by Richard Teveson) and the milder playwright George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), were delivered in true Restoration comedic spirit.
It is these friends in the first scene who introduce him to Billy Downs (Will Merrick), a timid young prospective rake in woollen stockings. Other than proving the efficacy of Rochester’s prophetic speech – ‘young man, you will die of this company’ – Billy seems like a fairly superfluous addition to the dramatis personae. Billy is a fictitious version of the Mr Downs killed at an incident at Epsom races. After having assaulted a constable in a state of inebriation, Rochester and a group of friends including Downs are set upon by reinforcements. Supposedly Etherege attempted to pacify the injured constable, when Rochester renewed his attacks and in the confusion Downs was mistaken for the aggressor and stabbed, later dying from his wounds.
The casting choices and direction make for some impeccably likeable and believable characters. Charles II (Jasper Britton) in particular had a comic command and a gift for timing which ensured he stole every scene he was in, however briefly. The king promoted Rochester from an early age, possibly due to a debt he felt to his father for aiding his escape after the battle of Worcester. It could have ended there, but the young Rochester’s wit entertained the King, which later on bought several reprieves for bad behaviour. In this production we are given a Charles II who is Janus-faced. We see glimpses of monarchical pomposity in public, but the Charles who we see most refuses to relinquish the pursuits of his youth. Contrary to the programme’s description of Charles as a ‘surrogate father’, it would be more accurate to say that this Charles seems to excuse Rochester his indiscretions because he sees in him his younger self, a protégé rather than a son. Rochester’s part is more like the indignant adolescent, balking under the king’s attempts to mould him in art and life, seeing only trumped up hypocrisy at work. The incident in which Rochester destroys a priceless sundial perfectly captures this. After a bout of heavy drinking, Rochester attacks the King’s favourite trinket whilst shouting, ‘What! Dost thou stand here to fuck time?! Kings and Kingdoms tumble down and so shalt thou!’ In this production, the King’s response, half incensed, half mocking, is ‘Do you have the time? BECAUSE I DONT!’ In reality the king was apparently so irate that he disappeared on his yacht for ten days immediately afterwards.
Elizabeth Barry and Rochester’s affair is given centrality in the plot and the production’s flyer asks ‘could she finally be the one to tame him?’ The question is, thankfully, never actually answered, though the production comes close. Her position as the focal point generates the misleading idea that Barry was the sole beneficiary of Rochester’s attention during this period. Inevitably the plot takes a prosaic turn, suggesting Barry was the one person who inspired in him a romantic love, which when unrequited drove him into a fatal melancholy. He was certainly frustrated with her determination to favour her career. Around 1676 he wrote a song directed at her, attempting to coax her away from the empty pleasure of acting,
Leave this gaudy gilded stage
From custom more than use frequented
Where fools of either sex and age
Crowd to see themselves presented.
To Love’s theatre, the bed,
Youth and beauty fly together,
And act so well it may be said
The laurel there was due to either.
Marketing ploys aside, the plot outlines some of the complexities in their relationship, and the basis for their attraction is mapped with imagination. Ophelia Lovibond’s Barry is defiant and audacious, her speeches laced with irony which gives her a sort of angry magnetism. She and Cooper share a flair for the expression of sarcasm, to great effect.
The final scenes dealing with Rochester’s premature death come swiftly. Stephen Jeffreys admits that biographical plays usually demand a generous amount of artistic licence, to fill in the less exciting gaps in a person’s life. In the case of Rochester there was an overabundance of exciting material and significant cuts were necessary. This does show in the closing part of the play. For so many who knew him, Rochester’s death was just as paradoxical as his life. Some sources painted him an earnest deathbed penitent; others insisted that his sobriety and impotency bred seriousness in him but not renunciation. This is an important dichotomy which is not fully explored in the production. Jeffreys made a commitment to the former narrative over the enduring mystery he left in his wake. Rochester’s post-mortem epilogue sets it plainly, “The deathbed convert. The pious debauchee… There I go, shuffling from the world. My dribble fresh upon the Bible. I look upon a pinhead and I see angels dancing.” However, where the overall tone of the film is maudlin and bleak, the farcical nature of much of the play draws out the irony and in the end sharpens the tragedy. It impresses upon the viewer a Rochester closely resembling the man summed up by his contemporaries: a man of ‘powerful charms and pointed wit’, whose mind was a constant battleground between a lust for and contempt of the freedoms of his age. I was particularly grateful that by the end there were no grim theatricalities, not a syphilitic sore or silver nose in sight. Contrary to his direct advice, Rochester is inescapably likeable, but one suspects this was the intention all along.
The Libertine, directed by Terry Johnson, is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket until 3rd December 2016.