The 2004 film was a bit of a stinker, but if any moment begs for a Restoration romp, it’s now – with Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn proving the continuing popularity of periwigs, hookers, Charles II and syphilis.
Stephen Jeffreys’s 1994 Restoration imitation about John Wilmot the 2nd Earl of Rochester has its moments, a couple of decent jokes and a sturdy, self-referential structure. As we see the life of Rochester play out to its bitter end one of the characters, George Etherege, has been documenting it and turns the saga into a very successful play called The Man of Mode. That play did actually exist, as did all these characters. Fictions and realities slip and slide, and the characters go for a bit of direct address every so often. But, even in its updated version, the play doesn’t seem particularly relevant – or even that rude.
Sure, there’s a song about dildos and a couple of judiciously spluttered ‘C’ words, but it’s very firmly in the category of ‘bawdy’. Minor titillation for people who think they’re not prudish but wouldn’t know a Rampant Rabbit if someone stuck it up their arse.
Dominic Cooper is kind of charming, or well spoken and attractive at least, but he’s not charming enough to be Lord Rochester. He tells us at the beginning we’re not going to like him, and by the end that’s true, but it’s also true throughout the play. He’s a brooding antagonist rather than a loveable rogue. It’s a way of performing the character that conjures an underlying psychology – Johnny is depressed and uncaring rather than hedonistic and high on life. He does the things he does in order to feel something, always after the next extreme – even if that extreme is severely pissing off the King by writing a play about the lavish debauchery of his royal court – rather than having fun because it’s fun.
Richard Teverson is excellent as tight-lipped, chalk-faced Sackville, one of Johnny’s gang. His gaunt face and crisp-toned snobbery provide a few glimmers of humour. Jasper Britton is brilliantly magisterial and supercilious as Charles II, treading a fine line between being mates with Johnny and his rotten lot and being their divinely-ordained sovereign. He kind of just wants to get pissed with them but mostly ends up pissed at them.
Every element of the production is very solid. There’s a big, chunky set with a stage upon the stage and a colossal gilt picture frame at the back onto which various images are projected. It’s all very knowingly theatrical. But a lot of the Blackadder-esque parodising – the humanising of history by seizing on minor moments of silliness – fades away and instead we’re asked to care about Johnny and his syphilis.
One of Jefferys’s accomplishments is to egg us on to laugh at slightly dubious things. We guffaw at Johnny’s Jack-the-laddery as he shags a couple of whores. All harmless fun, he encourages us to think, but it all feeds into this idea that Johnny isn’t a good person. That we shouldn’t like him.
The production is well-timed as a partner piece to the Globe’s Nell Gwynn, touring round the country. But whereas Nell Gwynn takes aim at the outmoded politics and conventions of Restoration romps, The Libertine makes them archetype. It’s a very particular sort of theatre that makes claims to edginess but, in the end, sort of lacks it.
The Libertine is on until 3rd December 2016 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Click here for more details.