This rollicking romp through the short but spectacular existence of a real Restoration rake should be juicy stuff. And when it stars Dominic Cooper – who first made his mark as the precociously lust-inspiring schoolboy Dakin in The History Boys – it ought to be a surefire hit. Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 play is still a stonking pleasure, with its ripe language, pungent flavour of debauchery and backstage shenanigans, and clever employment of the theatre as a poetic metaphor for the teeming stage of life. But somehow, despite plenty of lively moments, Terry Johnson’s production feels disappointingly flaccid. And though Cooper – in a role previously played by John Malkovich at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, and Johnny Depp on screen in the film version – has a smouldering moodiness and an arresting quality of scathing self-loathing, he’s not quite the charismatic ladykiller that the reputation of satirist and poet John Wilmott, second Earl of Rochester, demands.
To be fair, perhaps that’s a deliberate choice on Cooper’s part. After all, Rochester begins the piece with a blistering monologue in which he implores us not to like him, not to be charmed, not to excuse his bad behaviour on account of misty-eyed romanticism. But it’s rather too easy an instruction to obey. He swaggers, he smiles wolfishly, he sneers, but he’s short on the fatal appeal that should make him irresistible, in spite of himself. And you could say the same of Johnson’s staging, which desperately needs a fire to be lit beneath it. Designed by Tim Shortall and lit by Ben Ormerod, it looks and feels splendidly atmospheric. The set is at once grand and decaying, its crumbling pillars and cornicing full of darting shadows, illuminated by the glow of flickering candlelight. Video imagery, subtly employed and integrated with a painterly skill, whisks us from playhouse to coffeehouse to whorehouse, and from the grounds of Rochester’s country pile to the murky camaraderie of a London tavern.
Yet the pace of the production is sluggish, and the stakes never feel high enough. Charles II (wittily played by Jasper Britton) is back on the throne after extraordinary historic turbulence, including his father’s execution, a civil war and his own period of overseas exile. And Rochester died of venereal disease and alcoholism at just 33, so there should be a sense of freneticism, of precarious lives lived fast and colourfully, of intensity and excess. Strangely, these are lacking here.
That’s not to say that there isn’t still plenty to enjoy. Jeffrey’s writing oozes succulence, and the play’s sheer passion for theatre and theatricality is swooningly seductive. A scene in which Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond) – an actress to whom Rochester genuinely loses his heart – struggles against a hostile crowd in the pit, is brilliantly colourful, as is another in which the ailing hellraiser watches from the wings as she, now a star, steps out onto the stage, and away from him. In both cases, the tension between reality and illusion, as well as theatre’s ability to expose truths through artifice, is keenly felt.
We also encounter George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), the playwright who drew on Rochester to create Dorimant in Man of Mode (“You’ve made me endearing, haven’t you?” drawls Cooper disgustedly), as well as his angry, frustrated wife Elizabeth Malet (Alice Bailey Johnson) and his favourite prostitute, the intelligent and pragmatic Jane (Nina Toussaint-White). And we witness Rochester posing for Huysmans’ famous portrait with a monkey – his own contemptuous message to posterity. In fact, there’s a deep melancholia beneath the roistering, and a bitter aimlessness. “We talk this way because we’re bored,” Rochester warns a young spark eager to join Rochester's notorious circle – the Merry Gang of Wits, as they were dubbed by the poet Andrew Marvell. The audience is never bored, but it’s a shame we’re not more thoroughly thrilled.