Writer: Stephen Jeffreys
Director: Dominic Hill
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
The Libertine is based on the true story of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. Set in Restoration London while Charles II was on the throne, Rochester has everything going for him. He is a poet and playwright, intelligent and witty, vigorously healthy, wealthy, married, and a personal favourite of the King.
Yet he uses his position and talents to pursue a narcissistic and hedonistic lifestyle of excess, pushing every social convention to the limit. His determined and reckless challenge to every code of behaviour puts him into direct conflict with all those around him – his wife, mistress, whore, friends, servant, the King and even the audience. Even his opening lines, immediately stir our attention with the warning – “I shall do things you like …. But do not warm to me ….. I do not want you to like me.”
Stephen Jeffreys’ script cleverly leaves the audience both endlessly offended and entertained. Rochester’s wit, humour and talent with words invite praise, yet his vulgar and debauched behaviour cannot escape our condemnation. Rochester’s pursuit of the heiress Elizabeth Mallet for love, against the wishes of the King who sends him to The Tower, successfully courts both her, and our, admiration. But his subsequent abandonment of the virtuous in preference to the London brothel, displayed in all its excessive vulgarity, leaves us repulsed.
Dominic Hill’s production superbly evokes the hypocrisy of court life in tawdry 17th century London. The raucous behaviour of the theatre crowds is brilliantly reproduced for this century’s audience. The cast appear among us and heckle and boo until the performers walk off. We cannot hear a word said on stage but the insults from the hecklers are hilarious. It brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the earlier era. The stage setting from Tom Piper and lighting by Lizzie Powell vividly reproduce the brothels and orgiastic scenes which transpose to the seemingly harmonious country house setting for Rochester’s virtuous wife at the flick of a switch and the glide of a screen.
We watch as the Earl’s behaviour (played by Martin Hutson) pushes those around him to their limits and they set their own boundaries. His wife (Lucianne McEvoy) exhausts her attempts to counsel and forgive unconditionally; his mistress (Elexi Walker) protects herself by refusing to give up her stage career and independence; his whore resists the urge to care. Ultimately, it is Rochester’s perilous provocation of the King that is his undoing at court. The King (played by John Hodgkinson) stands aside to watch Rochester self destruct. This strong cast magnificently portray each character’s struggle to cope with their conflicting emotions. The scenes of bawdry court life are portrayed with great gusto.
It is not comfortable watching a man go through a moral and physical disintegration even if the crisis is entirely earned. The feelings of enjoying the ride with the witty Rochester and his merry gang, and watching his cynical behaviour destroy those around him are entirely contradictory. Does the Earl seek redemption and reconcile with those around him or is his self immolation complete? Jeffreys’ asks profound questions and leaves us with feelings which are difficult to resolve.
Runs until 31st May 2014 | Photo by Eoin Carey