Friday, 07 October 2016

The Libertine

Dominic Cooper looks the part of a restoration roué, but this play and his performance fail to seduce

Written by Georgina Brown

Frankly, The Libertine is much too in-yer-face on many fronts for you ladies, but anyone who has seen the ads for the show, with a bearded, super-dooper Dominic Cooper – who came to our notice as that ultra-cocky History Boy – nestled against three luscious, scantily clad lovelies, will want to know what they are missing.

The answer is rather less than I had hoped for, in terms of both audaciously sexy entertainment and, more disappointingly, penetrating psychological scrutiny. Stephen Jeffreys’ play is based on the life of the mad, bad and dangerous to know restoration satirist, hellraiser and rake John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, already familiar as the inspiration for the heartless, witty seducer Dorimant in George Etherege’s the Man of Mode.Georgina-Brown-colour-176

‘You made me endearing,’ says Rochester to his friend Etherege. Jeffreys’ play exposes the less endearing flip side, the insatiable whoring which caused Rochester’s death from syphilis, the alcoholism which no doubt contributed to his early demise at 33, the misery he inflicts on his wife (Alice Bailey Johnson, impossible to warm to, so it’s hard to mind much) and the sneering and cynicism which saw him drummed unceremoniously from court. The problem with Rochester, unlike the fictional Dorimant, is that his behaviour has real, painful consequences. When the King, his chum, who hangs out in the same whorehouse as he does, invites him to write a play, he mischievously concocts a pornographic anti-royalist satire, complete with an insufficiently amusing chorus of dancing girls brandishing sex toys. To his evident surprise, Rochester falls in love (not at all convincingly) with the actress Elizabeth Barry, who, thanks to his tuition in how to act truthfully, becomes one of the stars of the restoration stage. Ophelia Lovibond plays her as a hard little nut, whose failure to return his love contributes to his spiral of self-destruction. He finishes up looking as rotten and broken as he evidently feels.

The bigger problem with the play and director Terry Johnson’s production is that it’s all a bit of a mess, with too much declamatory telling and too little showing. Moreover, while Jeffreys exposes the gap between carefree restoration comedy and the ruinous reality, the result is neither a riotous romp (in spite of all the raunchy wenches merrily servicing a parade of aristos with chalky-white faces and cascading periwigs) nor a satisfying exploration of the emptiness or emotional and spiritual crises behind Rochester’s pleasure- seeking and ultimate despair.

And a distinctly lacklustre, shagged-out Dominic Cooper lacks spark – and, alas, real lust.

Until 3 December at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Suffolk Street, London SW1: 020-7930 8800,

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