The Libertine at Theatre Royal Haymarket
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, was a prominent member of the court under Charles II in 17th century England. Whilst today he is acknowledged as a talented writer and poet, he was more widely known in his heyday as a rebellious figure, who delighted in criticising the respected values of the era and famously indulged in extravagant alcohol consumption and extramarital sex. This taste for excess is what inspired Stephen Jeffreys’s play The Libertine, written in 1994, adapted into a feature film in 2004 and revived for the stage once more this autumn. Previously played by John Malkovich and Johnny Depp, the role of Wilmot is this time taken on by television and theatre star Dominic Cooper.
Set against the grand backdrop of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of the oldest theatres in the West End, the design values of the piece are spot on. London is effectively portrayed as a city of class extremes through the set and costume design as well as through the diversity of voice in the script. Mirroring the restoration literature of the time, the language employed by the play’s aristocratic characters is rich and poetic and often reflects the tone of an authentic restoration comedy, at the same time exposing the politics behind 17th century theatre. Notably, the negativity of Wilmot’s critical attitude towards life marks a stark contrast against the literary prowess with which he speaks.
Despite this there is one problem: there just isn’t enough debauchery. With a plot that aims to depict segments of Wilmot’s life rather than employing a strong forward-moving narrative, the final result would prove more entertaining if the lead character was portrayed as more outrageous and more despicable. That being said, the relationship that beings to flourish between Wilmot and his lover Elizabeth Barry does show initial potential to provide more of a direction to the narrative, but the affair is brushed over quite briefly and the couple display so little amorous passion that the relationship lacks audience engagement.
The Libertine provides an interesting insight to the life of a notorious character from England’s history but falls short in relaying the destructive hedonism of the libertine mentality. There are a number of scenes that are enjoyably raucous, if not frustratingly tame, and the story behind Wilmot’s famous portrait in which he poses with a monkey is a fascinating touch. And yes, Cooper’s representation of Wilmot is sharp and witty, but is his natural demeanour just simply too nice to satisfy a plot reliant on rompish debauchery?
The Libertine is at Theatre Royal Haymarket from 22nd September until 3rd December 2016. Book your tickets here.