Ophelia Lovibond and Dominic Cooper in The Libertine. © Alastair Muir

Ophelia Lovibond and Dominic Cooper in The Libertine. © Alastair Muir

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).

The Libertine runs at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket until 3 December 2016.

Overnight reviews

Michael Billington: Dominic Cooper commands the stage as the Restoration rebel John Wilmot in Stephen Jeffreys’ portrait of debauchery and self-destruction… Cooper follows in the footsteps of John Malkovich and Johnny Depp who have starred, on stage and screen respectively, as Stephen Jeffreys’ titular hero: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a Restoration poet, rake and rebel… The play may be too lewd for prudes, but it offers an invigorating, warts-and-all portrait of a self-destructive sceptic.
TIMES - ★★★★
TIMES – ★★★★
Ann Treneman: For all its swashbuckling, this play is about love, the theatre, the nature of kings and what happens to men who won’t take themselves seriously… The night really belongs to Cooper though, virile, unpredictable, teetering on the edge of darkness. It’s a fine performance, and in a periwig too.

Dominic Cavendish: Rochester lived fast and died young, at 33, of the pox and alcoholism. Cooper has a certain glowering magnificence, a sleepy-eyed air of command, but his delivery inclines to the tee-total, the gravely monotone… Where is the emotional and intellectual G-spot? Not a full-on flop all told but be warned, if you go seeking after the elixir of lusty excitement you may end up feeling you’ve but quaffed a cup of Earl Grey.


Henry Hitchings: Terry Johnson’s revival has energy and charm, with Tim Shortall’s design evoking the period’s extravagant fashions. But what’s missing is a sense of real danger. Rochester’s debauchery never exactly feels rampant, and the world he inhabits could seem more fascinatingly filthy. Although Cooper guarantees a degree of smouldering allure, the atmosphere of The Libertine isn’t sexy enough.


Quentin Letts: For the prologue, Rochester (Dominic Cooper) saunters front of stage and tells the audience members they will not like him. ‘The gentlemen will be envious and the women will be repelled.’ I liked this confrontational opening. Yet neither of those predictions quite comes true. From the start, the ill-shaven Mr Cooper cuts a seedy figure, more likely to provoke scorn and pity.

Mark Shenton: Exuberant revival of a play that is part-historical drama and part-comic demonstration of men behaving badly… Cooper was one of the original History Boys in Alan Bennett’s play, who knowingly used his schoolboy sexuality to his advantage. He’s still indulging it more than a dozen years later, but the boyish charm is starting to fade.
TIME OUT - ★★★
TIME OUT – ★★★

Andrzej Lukowski: Dominic Cooper is very good as Wilmot: from his arch opening monologue in which he witheringly orders us not to like him, he portrays Rochester as a brilliant, troubled underachiever, whose wildly provocative behaviour comes from a mix of frustration at the limits of Restoration society, and a sort of sublimated inferiority complex that stops him writing ‘proper’ works in the vein of his friends John Dryden and George Etherege for fear of ridicule.

MY THEATRE MATES > TheatreCat - ★★★★
MY THEATRE MATES > TheatreCat – ★★★★
Libby Purves: Cooper puts in a commanding, convincingly troubled performance but what shines out from Terry Johnson’s production (ravishingly composed, designed and lit by Tim Shortall and Ben Ormerod) is the strength of the women. Lovibond is a defiant, feminist Lizzie Barry; Alice Bailey Johnson moving, decent and determined as Lady Rochester; Nina Toussaint-White as Jane the prostitute again toughly moving; and as Big Dolly and a magnificently robust stage manager Lizzie Roper gives us yet another aspect of womanhood.
Aleks Sierz: Terry Johnson’s bright and energetic production is dominated by Cooper’s charismatic personality, physically robust and increasingly full of dark emptiness. He combines charm and fury in equal measure and effortlessly bestrides the story, both convincing in his theory that humans are animals and aware of his own absurdity. The three main women in the large cast refreshingly give voice to female criticism of male destructiveness.