John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was the licentious libertine who embodied the spirit of the Restoration era. After King Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, most of the country was eager to put the Puritan days they had lived through behind them. John Wilmot was more than happy to do this, yet he also regularly expressed contempt for the life of luxury he agreeably partook in. A writer and poet, one of his most recognised works, A Satyr of Mankind, is still held in high regard today. The Libertine, written by Stephen Jeffreys and directed by Terry Johnson, explores the conflict within him as he navigates the new world of excess that he thrives in yet simultaneously deplores.
We enter 17th Century England through an elaborate pre-set, with prostitutes walking around the stalls selling ‘juicy ones’ (oranges) and kisses for fifty pence apiece. It is a little taste of the period as the Earl himself would have experienced it. Wilmot (Dominic Cooper) enters, and proudly tells the crowd ‘You will not like me’ and what follows is two and a half hours of him proving that precise statement to be true. Fondness is not an emotion evoked by Cooper’s portrayal of Wilmot. Pity, on the other hand, is. As he floats around his peers with a self-assured swagger whilst exercising his sharp wit, he is clearly a virile and yet morally bankrupt man. He makes us laugh, cringe and ultimately feel sorry for him. Wilmot’s favourite prostitute Jane (Nina Toussaint-White) is loyal and tough, but even she worries for him.
Humour is the driving force of the play. For example there is an entire musical number performed dedicated to dildos. This fizzles out in the second act, and as Wilmot’s health declines, so does his nonchalant attitude. It is promptly clear that Wilmot isn’t a rakish lad, but an alcoholic nihilist. He is, though I loathe to say it, rather complicated. Cooper is brooding and commanding in the role, and so consistently contemplative it’s almost exhausting. Ophelia Lovibond is funny and firm as his mistress, Elizabeth Barry. George Etheridge (Mark Hadfield), a playwright who uses Wilmot as inspiration for the character of Dorimant in The Man of Mode, Tom Alcock (Will Barton) and Charles Sackville (Richard Teverson) compile a gaggle of drunken Restoration gentlemen who provide the Earl and the audience with hilarious distractions from Wilmot’s woes against a simple yet brilliantly adaptable set designed by Tim Shorthall.
Attempting to strike a balance between the two extremes of absolute Puritanism and seedy debauchery, behind the humour is a very real and striking philosophical question that plagues Wilmot – what is the point of it all? Silly, saucy and just a little bit sad, The Libertine is a portrait of a troubled young man in an age where anything goes.
The Libertine is playing at Theatre Royal Haymarket until December 3.
Photo: Tristram Kenton