Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 play The Libertine oozes pain, pus and passion. Director Dominic Hill accurately describes this play as being very much for our times in spite of its evocative 17th century setting, dealing as it does with the vagaries of celebrity lifestyle, and the search for some kind of purpose and meaning in a debauched world.
Martin Hutson takes the titular role of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, hedonist and bawdy playwright, whose notorious appetite for boozing and sexual debauchery was matched only by his self-loathing. Hutson has the requisite charisma, if not quite the nastiness, cupping the balls of a new protege, ignoring his god-fearing wife and working his way through whorehouse and alehouse alike with great aplomb.
Commissioned to pen a new play for King Charles II which captures the zeitgeist of Restoration England, Rochester pens ‘Senior Dildo’, a pornographic satire of such bad taste, describing the king as a pervert ”who rules with his prick”, that he is effectively disowned, first by the king himself, then by his fellow libertines. Rochester spirals into addiction, debt and venereal illness.
A strong ensemble pose in rotting tableaux vivants: initially the staging is strikingly beautiful, with a vibrancy and lust befitting the empty ennui of the bored rich. Of particular note are Rochester’s main men, Charles Sackville, deliciously portrayed by Andy Clark as a preening, perma-disgusted fop reeking of hubris and lavender, and his equally dissolute chum George Etherege, a camp, strutting glutton in periwig and breeches that leave nothing to the imagination.
Unfortunately, the production itself becomes increasingly constrained: the verdant scenery, designed by Tom Piper, teasingly slides into more chaotic territory: sexual acts pop up from floorboards, some of the cast heckle from the sidelines. These directorial choices, though they seem intended to shock, are strangely underwhelming, and seem to betray a certain uncertainty about the entire endeavour: farcical, but not compulsively funny; bawdy, yet somehow never crude enough.
Rochester himself (who warns the audience in his steely-eyed opening monologue, ”You will not like me”) should surely come across as more unlikeable—a complete bastard—a snivelling, vicious, cowardly pervert. He commits horrible acts but somehow still seems like a good chap. When he does ultimately become a pathetic matchstick figure, his body ravaged by syphilis, it is frankly hard to care one way or another.
Only the scenes between Rochester and his two mistresses, the cackling, smart whore Jane (played here by a bold Elexi Walker) whose self-contained presence elevates her beyond mere stereotype, and proto-feminist Elizabeth Barry, the dreadful actress he tutors before falling for, have real weight. Gillian Saker (surely too beautiful to be ‘plain’) gives a subtle, sceptical and heart-breaking performance: as her role of Elizabeth develops, it becomes clear that, in spirit and intellect, she is more than a match for the eponymous libertine.
Jeffrey’s script is wonderfully barbed, but, despite fine casting, self-reflexive scenes and some amusing moments, this production is unfortunately a little bloodless. Less braying and more pathos would made Rochester more sympathetic, yet the complexity of his character would require any artistic director to walk a difficult line between sympathy and disgust. Unfortunately—and despite some very watchable moments—Hill does not quite manage to negotiate the tricky characterisation which hinges the success of this play.