“You will not like me,” insists John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, at the start of The Libertine; not so much presented an unreliable narrator, more the self-created bad boy of Restoration England, determined to be the centre of attention at all times and horrified when one of his companions in wit and hedonism, the playwright “Gentle” George Etherege, fictionalises him in his own play, The Man of Mode, and dares to make the self-declared rake and libertine “endearing”.
Ebullient, nuanced and vigorous piece of theatre.
While Etherege aptly recorded the hedonistic age in which he lived, Stephen Jeffrey’s play (originally performed in 1994, and filmed 10 years later with Johnny Depp in the lead role) suggests that Rochester—atheist, drinker and energetic lover of both women and men—was far too busy living life to excess to spend any time preserving it for eternity. He was a man who always needed to “go too far”in terms of public decency, an addict for theatre because only in the artifice of the playhouse can he feel anything. Of course, as the play certainly doesn’t attempt to hide, Rochester ultimately paid a high price in terms of his health and relationships—dying, presumably of alcoholism and syphilis, but perhaps also of being shunned by his peers, aged just 33.
Jeffreys’ The Libertine is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the man, but therein lies the danger of following Etherege’s lead and presenting Rochester as some ultimately loveable rogue. Thankfully, in this excellent stripped-back revival, director Dominic Hill’s choice of a sharp-edged Martin Hutson in the lead role ensures that, no matter his smile, we’re always aware of the man’s predilection for self-destruction, narcissism and cruelty; of the emptiness that lies underneath the man’s undoubtedly attractive swagger.
Hutson rightfully dominates the stage, even when in his pale-faced decrepitude, but its worth mentioning the fine support he receives from an ensemble cast including Gillian Saker as Rochester’s mistress Elizabeth Barry and Lucianne McEvoy as his wife Elizabeth Malet. Elexi Walker, as Rochester’s (and, indeed, the King’s) favourite whore, Jane adds real flesh and spirit to what could easily be a cliché, while Tony Cownie is always a pleasure to watch, whether as the mouse-like Etherege or the morose painter Jacob Huysmans.
Hill’s production is—in common with many recent productions at the Citz—deliberately stripped of artifice, and all the more effective for it. From the start the audience is faced with a sparse set onto which the cast bring on and then carry off basic props when no longer required; a space where characters lurk among the upstage shadows when not required; and where illustrative backcloths (designed by Tom Piper) slide stage right and left to indicate interiors or exteriors.
At the close, Hutson as Rochester asks if, as an audience, we like him any better now; while the jury may be out on the man and his life, there is surely little doubt about this ebullient, nuanced and vigorous piece of theatre.