I experienced frequent flashbacks while watching The Libertine last night at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Here’s another Restoration-set comedy to hit the West End in which much of the action (and myriad in-jokes) takes place in and around a London theatre. The Libertine even shares characters with Jessica Swales’ Nell Gwynn (though Nell herself is only referred to) and an address (the Haymarket) with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, which both had critically acclaimed runs earlier this year. (Throw in the 2014 stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love – covering similar historical and theatrical ground, albeit several decades earlier – and it’s a quartet). This production is, as The Times’ Ann Treneman noted, crying out for a spaniel (it makes due with a monkey puppet instead).
I imagine the producers and director Terry Johnson may have been emboldened by the success of these other plays to choose now to revive Stephen Jeffreys‘ 1994 play The Libertine. And, whereas Nell Gwynn and Mr Foote’s Other Leg provided vehicles for Gemma Arterton and Simon Russell Beale respectively, here the title role is taken by one-time History Boys pin-up Dominic Cooper. He plays the (real-life) 17th-century rake John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who lived fast and died young at the age of 33 from alcoholism and syphilis. The part was originated onstage by John Malkovich and onscreen by Johnny Depp.
Cooper seizes the opportunity with gusto though by the standard set out in his barnstorming prologue – “you will not like me”, he assures the audience – he fails. Because I liked him and Johnson’s bright and bawdy production enormously. Cooper is joined in a memorable ensemble by Jasper Britton (as Charles II), Mark Hadfield (as playwright George Etherege, who modelled his hit Restoration comedy The Man of Mode on the Earl), Ophelia Lovibond (as love interest and leading actress Elizabeth Barry), Alice Bailey Johnson (as the Earl’s forbearing wife), Nina Toussaint-White (as the Earl’s preferred prostitute) and Lizzie Roper (as a stage manager and others).
Tags: Dominic Cooper, Jasper Britton, Lizzie Roper, Mark Hadfield, Mr Foote's Other Leg, Nell Gwynn, Olivia Lovibond, Shakespeare in Love, Stephen Jeffreys, Terry Johnson, The Libertine, Theatre Royal Haymarket