Writer: Steven Jeffreys
Director: Dominic Hill
Reviewer: R. G. Balgray
Mention John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and it’s hard to avoid words like hedonism and lechery. A man of rare wit and ability, he was following the pathway of excess long before it became a Romantic cliché. So it might be tempting to expect something of a morality tale from the Citizens’ new production of The Libertine by Steven Jeffreys, but there is much, much more to it than that.
Playwright Steven Jeffreys was responsible for the original 1994 production of the play, and the film version with Johnny Depp, so it’s fair to say that he’s steeped in his topic; and in this high quality revival his depth of knowledge is clearly evident. The play opens in a Restoration coffee house: Etherege and Sackville, blowflies in this gaudy and gilded landscape, prepare the vituperative lampoons common in the so-called Augustan age; but they are outdone by their friend Rochester – master of the extreme, the exaggerated, and the scatological. In his pursuit of wit – and the attention of all – he will say and do anything (there’s something unsettling about his Prologue when, with house lights up, he tells women in the audience he is “up for it. All the time” – then repeats this, for the men). But unsettling is his game.
For in this revival, it becomes clear that its hero is the rock star of his times. ”Charismatic” barely covers it. Martin Hutson convincingly says and does anything he wants with his fellow characters, glibly manipulating his wife, his protégé then mistress Elizabeth Barry, and various prostitutes in the city’s bawdy houses; because he can. His flouting of decorum extends in all directions: from his vicious satires of Charles II to the self-loathing clarified in the famous Huysmans portrait. Yet he remains, when on stage, the focus for all action and all our attention: even at his most repellent, even when at his worst. Since Jeffreys allows his hero the inclusion of some of the more scabrous and pornographic of the poems, it’s easy to understand his interest in him, and the affection the audience feels for him.
But while this is often hilarious, there are any number of more serious sides to this multi-layered production. There are discourses on Nature versus Art, philosophical musings on the true nature of drama and artifice, and, in the treatment of the female characters, a complex debate on power and sexuality being explored. In an era when formality was so important, this production, with its clever use of sliding scenery panels, resembles nothing so much as a set of Chinese Boxes. While also managing a number of highly entertaining coups-de-theatre (many prospective audiences might find it difficult to forget what might be referred to as the dance of the dildoes…) and in the process, there are also some interesting resonances: particularly on the cult of personality, on our own worship of loathsome celebrity, in our own gaudy and gilded times.
Running until 24th May 2014, thereafter at Bristol Old Vic 28th – 31st May