The Libertine (Theatre Royal, Haymarket)

The Libertine (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, until December 3rd)

Anyone salivating over the salacious poster promoting The Libertine at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, is in for a big disappointment.

Apart from a lewd and largely irrelevant song at the opening of Act Two, this production delivers little of the sauciness it teases. Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 faux-Restoration romp (which he has been rewriting ever since, according to a worrying programme note) totters between bawdy humour and a dark edge that sometimes feels like a film noir director is experimenting with a Carry On movie.

A swaggering prologue sees the rakish John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, addressing the audience and promising, “You will not like me.” As the story unfolds we are introduced to both sides of this undoubtedly colourful yet complex character: the witty and intelligent poet favoured by the king and the debauched and self-destructive rebel banished from royal presence and for whom it is hard to have any real sympathy.

Tim Shortall’s elegant but crumbling at the edges theatrical set with a back-wall gold frame artistically capturing projected scenes is a reminder of the major themes: the cruel decadence of Charles II’s court creating a society of excess and the absurd artificiality of art at odds with real life. However, the Haymarket seems too grand a venue for a reflective piece that would surely have more of an impact in a smaller, in your face setting.

At the heart of this Carry On Carolean effort is Dominic Cooper, making a welcome return to the stage as the boorish Wilmot, himself the inspiration for George Etherege’s flamboyant Dorimant in the 1676 hit The Man of Mode.  Cooper’s Earl glowers seductively and makes the downward spiral of his life interesting, yet his commanding stage presence is not well served by the play’s inability to be certain whether this brooding anti-hero is an unlovable rogue or free-thinking intellectual responsible for his own downfall.

His self-serving relationships with three contrasting women symbolise the excesses and contradictions of his desire – a comfortable home life with understanding country wife Elizabeth (Alice Bailey Johnson), the illusory pleasures of theatre with rising star Elizabeth Barry (a feisty Ophelia Lovibond), or the hedonistic carelessness exemplified by prostitute Jane (Nina Toussaint-White). One wishes for more of the other main female character, the down to earth stage manager Molly, of whom Lizzie Roper makes the most.

Jasper Britton’s crotchety Charles II embodies the capricious heart of the play, a merry but mercurial monarch bored with both bawd and bard, while Cornelius Booth serves up some delicious slices of ham as the stuttering actor who scores success playing the dramatised version of the licentious Earl.

Wilmot’s cronies (as adoring of the smooth reprobate as Falstaff and the gang following Prince Hal) are exceptionally well-portrayed; Mark Hadfield as playwright Etherege, Richard Teverson as the powdered epitome of the Restoration era Sackville, Will Merrick as the easily led young spark Billy and Will Barton as the far from subservient serving man Alcock.

Terry Johnson’s direction certainly tries to rev up the pace and pick out the light and shade of both characters and plot, yet it’s often a losing battle with a meandering script. It’s a shame, as after the uninteresting frolicsome froth of the first half the second act has considerably more depth and becomes darker, but there is too little time to explore the detail of what has been opened up.

Ultimately it’s a fair production of a play which fails to live up to its pre-show hype or its titillating prologue and in which there is a feeling of too much energy wasted.

David Guest

(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub