STEPHEN Jeffreys’ play The Libertine, the scurrilous story of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, has its first major revival in a production by Terry Johnson, now on stage in Bath before a season at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket from 22nd September to 3rd December.
Set in the court of Charles II, it’s the story of the charismatic earl, a poet, lover, theatre director and drunkard, a man with a death wish every bit as passionate as his other appetites. It starts as Rochester addresses the audience, daring them to attempt to like him and promising disappointment and misery if they do.
Tim Shortall’s clever set lit by Ben Ormerod brings the action into the auditorium and the audience into the action, from the splendour of the court to the stench of the stews.
Charles, restored to the throne and anxious to develop his reign in the arts and sciences – while indulging his appetite for playhouse creatures and whores – has little option but to banish his favourite Rochester, when every chance he throws to the earl ends in satirical ribaldry.
The married Rochester, who seized his wife by force, is now bored, and falls obsessively for an actress. Her attempts at resistance fail, but she finally rejects the by-now fatally sick man.
The play is a sexy, funny, poignant, infuriating and illuminating look at the Restoration, and the writer manages some political comment that is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century. In many ways, Laura Wade’s Posh is the story’s natural successor.
Dominic Cooper brings the perfect balance of bravado, priapic preoccupation, artistic brilliance and irresistible self-destruction to the central role. Jasper Britton is the drily funny but much-challenged king, with Will Barton as the aptronymical Tom Alcock, Nina Toussaint-White as the devoted prostitute, Alice Bailey Johnson as the devoted wife and Ophelia Lovibond as the ambitious actress.
The Libertine will titillate, entertain, shock and disgust, and Johnson’s production captures all its nuances with a sometimes prurient delight.