Following in the style of a Restoration farce, The Libertine opens with a Prologue from our libertine himself the Earl of Rochester. Acknowledging his charming disposition, he warns the ladies (and gentlemen) against falling for this smoothness: ‘You should not love me. Do not love me.’ There is no fear of that in a play so poorly written that I can’t find a singular reason to have any element of interest let alone concern for the characters.
With Charles restored to the throne, the play follows Rochester and his band of comrades in their various hijinks. A man tired with life, loving but not living, Rochester continues to seek lewd employment, much to the annoyance of the King. And his wife. But how long can these acts go unchecked?
The actual world of the play is commendable. The set is visually interesting: the action takes place on a wooden platform, the backdrop a giant frame with the image changing digitally, painting pictures in front of our eyes. The scene which recreates the atmosphere at the Globe or similar yard style theatres is strikingly accurate. The very verse of Dryden which Rochester and his pals mock and our lead’s own philosophical ramblings are all actually beautifully phrased.
“A complete farce…not even this libertine can free the production from the chains of bad writing which drag it down.“
This contrasts greatly to the sub par writing in which the majority of the play is written. Relying heavily on shock and cock jokes, it’s uncertain whether Stephen Jeffreys was writing this mocking the go-to joke of the period or if that’s truly all he could write. Good jokes are there and make a welcome break from the constant cock-a-mamie, like the sundial pun on kings and time. But it’s saying something when the thing which got the most laughs was unscripted: Jasper Britton’s apologising for throwing his script at an audience member.
Were the play better paced, it could improve. In the opening prologue, we are implored to not fall for this rake. But aside from two affairs on the side and a certain disregard for life, I see no nefarious machinations. I went in expecting Iago; instead I got Roderigo. In an age of Game of Thrones, it’s not enough to merely have a licentiousness and propensity for throwing the c word round to make a man a cad. Or even interesting. The only reason to show any interest in his character or sympathises comes in the last 20 minutes, 2 hours too late.
With such little to work with, Dominic Cooper does an admirable job in his first performance on a West End stage, having previously starred in the National’s History Boys. Carrying himself with an air of charm and aloft in all aspects, he plays an English gent brilliantly but is at his best in his decline. Other notable performances include Britton as Charles II, bringing an absurdity and lightness to the restored king. Also worth noting is Alice Bailey Johnson as Rochester’s wife, who delivers some of the best (if contrived) monologues to audience, the only one finding any emotional depth in her character. The rest of the cast do well with what little character they have to work with.
Verdict: a complete farce (and not in the way they intended). Not even this libertine can free the production from the chains of bad writing which drag it down.