Long before our rock and film stars were romping with groupies, drinking to excess and creating red-top headlines there was Johnny Wilmot. Even his name sounds rock ‘n’ roll.
But John, the Second Earl of Rochester, was an original. He lived hard, dyed young, and left a hedonistic hangover to history’s dissolute youth.
The Libertine opened at London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket, last night with Dominic Cooper striding up to the audience and declaring: “Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me.” We titter before he gives a lascivious leer and adds: “I am up for it – all of the time!” And we titter some more.
Yes, it starts with ribald talk of erections and fruity young maids flogging their oranges, and moves on, after the interval, to a cheeky song featuring dildos, gives lip service to oral sex, and includes a dress rehearsal for an outrageous porno playlet that, thankfully, never gets performed.
But Johnny’s right. As anti-heroes go, Rochester is unparalleled. What is remarkable is that this revival of Stephen Jeffreys’ bawdy Restoration romp is rooted in fact, not fiction.
Here was a man of prodigious talent, a renowned supporter of the arts, diarist, satirist and playwright, who was destroyed by his own insatiable demons.
By 28 he had lived the lives of a dozen profligate men and was reduced to an embittered, cynical alcoholic who couldn’t see further than the next bottle of wine or the next prostitute. It’s all so familiar and tragic.
Dominic Cooper gives a lusty performance as The Libertine in this scintillating production that is as much about the early days of theatre as it is about a brilliant life wasted by excess.
He’s surrounded by a first rate company that includes Jasper Britton, hidden under a substantial Cavalier periwig, as King Charles II, Mark Hadfield,Will Barton getting laughs as a servant called Alcock, and Lizzie Roper as a Jill-of-all-trades that includes stage manager and a buxom whore called Big Dolly.
Director Terry Johnson has stripped away the glamour of Johnny Depp’s Rochester in the film version and, instead, makes this 17th century rake a doomed and debauched wretch, who despite his protestations, earns our sympathy.
Rochester often talks directly to the audience and, at times, the action freezes on stage to allow him to give some insight into the moment.
Tim Shortall’s cleverly designed set mixes a large golden gilt frame that contains ever changing video backcloths, the tawdry props of a downmarket playhouse, and the shabby walls of the city’s slums.
Rochester and his chums, Hadfield’s playwright George Etherege and the dandified Charles Sackville (Richard Teverson), spend their days drinking, whoring and visiting the theatre where actors attempt to perform in front of wenches serving fruit, and audiences disinterested in the productions.
But there is something about aspiring young actress Elizabeth Barry (who was to become one of England’s greatest thespians) which attracts the interest of the libidinous Wilmot and he decides to tutor her.
Their relationship, which begins with Barry (Ophelia Lovibond superb as the forceful, ballsy, burgeoning stage-star) understandably suspicious of her benefactor’s attentions but soon evolves and Rochester finds himself infatuated – much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife (Alice Bailey Johnson).
At the same time gentry’s bad boy manages to alienate his patron, King Charles II, by turning a 500-guinea commission to write a substantial play and “major work of literature”, into a one-act satire featuring out-sized dildos and “scenes of a sexual nature” (as they say).
Towards the end we see the inevitable decline of John Wilmot that comes from a life lived to the full. It’s a brilliant performance from Cooper that’s filled both with anger, pathos and despair.
The Libertine plays at Theatre Royal, Haymarket until December 3.
Dominic Cooper gives a thrilling turn as 17th century satirist and profligate rake, Johnny Wilmot, in a revival of Stephen Jeffreys’ bawdy Restoration romp, The Libertine.