The gilded splendor of the Haymarket, London’s most beautiful theater, is an appropriate venue for sedate comedies in general and Restoration plays in particular. On the other hand, its genteel but elaborate baroque interior is rarely associated with the in-your-face lascivious courtings, sexual byplay and foul language associated with Restoration London after King Charles II ended an 11-year period of Puritanism when he came to the throne in 1660.
Debauchery was second nature in his court, and it infiltrated every nook and cranny of society, with whoring and drunkenness common occurrences among men of mode – one of the most infamous being poet-cum-satirist John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. A cynic who placed animals above people and showed no compassion for the human condition, he despised mankind – himself included – ranted against the meaningless of life, and died at the age of 33 from alcohol poisoning and syphilis.
Brilliant, colourful and undeniably self-destructive, Wilmot was the kind of Restoration rake whose imperfections were perfect for stage or page. His larger-than-life excesses inspired the playwright George Etheredge to write The Man of Mode, whose hero Dorimant bears more than a passing resemblance to the second earl.
Another playwright inspired by his colourful and licentious life was Stephen Jeffreys. Eschewing anything approaching good taste – fellatio, rampant fornication not to mention the full gamut of four-letter Anglo Saxon words – his 1994 play The Libertine attempted to dig deeper into his subject’s psyche than his 16th-century predecessor did. First seen at the Royal Court Theatre and filmed as a picaresque romp in 2005 starring Johnny Depp, it is now revived with Dominic Cooper as the eponymous hero.
Unfortunately, Cooper, a perfectly decent actor, lacks the charisma and star power the role demands. In a prologue, the earl tells the audience he does not want their sympathy, admiration or approval and warns them that by the end of the play they will hate him even more than they do at the beginning. Intriguing so far. But to spend two and a half hours in his company we have to be seduced by his arrogance, his braggadocio and the sheer force of his personality. Without those qualities to support his nihilism and wanton recklessness, the evening becomes little more than a catalogue of the self-inflicted misfortunes that preceded his doom.
Typical of Wilmot’s overriding folly was his acceptance of £500 from bosom-buddy King Charles (Jasper Britton, excellent) to write a play with a royal theme. What he delivered was a satirical indictment of Charles’ corrupt reign called, in this version at any rate, Sodom, featuring a chorus line of girls suggestively wielding dildos. His punishment was banishment – albeit temporarily.
While Jeffreys’ play is rich in period showbiz gossip and banter and has several amusing scenes – such as Wilmot willfully substituting an organ-grinder’s monkey for his long-suffering country wife Elizabeth (Alice Bailey Johnson) while posing for a portrait – its inner life is non-existent. It says little about the loose moral climate of life in London in the swinging 1660s that we didn’t already know and underscores the majority of the secondary characters, especially the women.
Nina Touissant-White as a prostitute and Ophelia Lovibond as an actress in whose career (and body) Wilmot took an interest, are very two dimensional, as is his wife who resignedly returns to the country when it becomes clear that her presence in London is no deterrent for her husband’s promiscuity.
Tim Shortall’s design, an ornately gilded frame at the back of the stage and on which is projected the various locales in which the play is set, could be an extension of the Haymarket theatre itself.
Terry Johnson’s direction keeps the action fluid, and I loved the painterly way he arranges the characters on stage with a skill redolent of some 17th-century master. With a more mesmeric leading man to draw one’s eye into the centre of his sprawling canvas, he might even have brought it off.