The Libertine, Theatre Royal Haymarket, review: ‘Dominic Cooper is skillful and brooding’

PUBLISHED: 12:00 07 October 2016 | UPDATED: 09:56 10 October 2016

Dominic Cooper in The Libertine, Picture: Alastair Muir

Dominic Cooper in The Libertine, Picture: Alastair Muir

Archant

Dominic Cooper follows in the footsteps of John Malkovich and Johnny Depp as our anti-hero, insisting in his prologue he has no regard for being liked.

Lizzie Roper and Ophelia Lovibond in The Libertine. Picture: Alastair MuirLizzie Roper and Ophelia Lovibond in The Libertine. Picture: Alastair Muir

John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and notorious playboy in King Charles II’s Restoration Court, certainly had a good time.

Or did he? While Rochester, is still regarded as a highly accomplished English poet, it’s the tension between the insatiable desire for excess versus the sobering dictates of the soul - of the gulf between art and life - that animate this revival of Stephen Jeffreys’ The Libertine, first staged at the Royal Court. But where the libertines are dressed to impress in Terry Johnson’s vividly realized production, the play is a little more threadbare.

The set designed by Tim Shortall is gloriously ornate: chandeliers dominate and a gigantic canvas holds projections that alternate between semi-clad beauties to paintings of the Playhouse Theatre – the location where Rochester meets love-of-his-life, actress Elizabeth Barry (a misguidedly cool performance from Ophelia Lovibond).

Dominic Cooper follows in the footsteps of John Malkovich and Johnny Depp as our anti-hero, insisting in his prologue he has no regard for being liked. But Cooper skillfully takes us on the journey of Rochester’s spiritual awakening with a brooding inwardness that works well set against the carapace of excess.

He’s given excellent support from Alice Bailey Johnson as Elizabeth Malet, his country wife, who articulates years of internalized disappointment with every precise intonation, rendering her character strikingly modern. There is a scene where the libertines attempt to buy their way out of a violent brothel brawl that foreshadows the pub attack from Laura Wade’s Bullingdon boys in ‘Posh.’ And yet it’s all not enough to make this play feel as relevant as it could given our growing demand for instant gratification fed through social media. Jeffreys’ script is elegant and artful but Rochester’s self-loathing is under-explored. Still, the spectacle and ribald comedy are a delight.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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