The Libertine review: Dominic Cooper cuts a dash as a debauched earl ★★★

Ben Dowell enjoys an evening with one of his literary heroes but finds that the Earl of Rochester's rakish life doesn't quite work as play

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I loved reading the poems of the Restoration rogue John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, as an undergraduate. All those filthy reflections on sex, his liberal use of the f- and c-words and the fact that he seemed a right laugh did it for me as a 19-year-old.

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But apart from some fine verse (a lot of it was destroyed by understandably affronted and concerned relatives), he never really fulfilled his promise, wasting his 33 years on earth on whoring and heavy drinking.

There’s isn’t much of the poetry in Stephen Jeffrey’s 1994 play (more’s the pity) which takes in his whole adult life. But the drama, which has been rewritten several times in the intervening years (and was made into an entertaining film starring Johnny Depp), is a bold and often vibrant stab at bringing the character to life. Shaped around his passion for a young actress (Ophelia Lovibond’s Lizzie Barry, below), it’s a wild romp through the excesses of 1670s London.

The part has been played many times before including by John Malkovich, who was a much more cerebral, complicated Rochester. Dominic Cooper is more physical – more dashing, flamboyant, better-looking (sorry, John) and someone you could imagine charming the whores in the brothels of London with a lot more ease. 

Not that Cooper doesn’t evoke the despair-drenched thinking behind all his vigorous thrusting, although sometimes his agonised reflections on the futility of his life do feel a little flat.


 Book tickets for The Libertine from the Radio Times box office


The main problem, though, is that the play is quite disjointed. It opens with a prelude in which Rochester implores the audience not to like him or warm to him, but then starts a journey where he bares his soul and effectively invites us to do just that.

Much fun is made by director Terry Johnson of the roistering and the attendant doistering. But the central drama – his unfolding love for the young actress Elizabeth Barry whose potential he spots on stage and with whom he falls in love – is quickly discarded (as Rochester was by the actress herself).

We then cut back to more drinking and whoring before he finally returns, broken and pox-ridden, to his long suffering rusticated wife (Alice Bailey Johnson’s Elizabeth Malet, below) to die at a tragically young age. 

Of course, Jeffreys is constrained by the facts of Rochester’s own life, which do not follow a neat narrative arc. And certainly there is much to be enjoyed. The rude wordplay, the gallivanting fun, and a Charles II who is played with superb comic precision by Jasper Britton. The second half opens with a chorus of women singing a very, very rude song and brandishing giant dildos, which is as fun and funny as it sounds.

There’s also excellent support from Will Barton as the Earl’s wry serving man Alcock (yes, can you believe it?) and the rest of Rochester’s rogues. I was also very taken by the poignancy which Will Merrick brought to his tragic young blade Billy Downs.

It looked wonderful as well– the fabulous clothwork and candlelight enhances the mood and atmosphere. Designer Tim Shortall proves that you don’t have to clutter up a stage to convincingly evoke brothels, coffee houses and royal gardens.

But what, you wonder at the close, is the point of this? The story of his life is shapeless and as a dramatic experience it ultimately feels a mite unsatisfying. But I wouldn’t call it a flop: what you warm to here is the vibrancy and fun, the naughty idea that you are peeking into a bad life fully lived and fully wasted – enjoying the moment but leaving rather low. I suppose that’s fitting in a way. I am sure the Earl felt the same way at the end of his life.

The Libertine is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until December 3


Book tickets for The Libertine from the Radio Times box office


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