Dark, seductive and thrilling are just three words to describe Dominic Cooper’s performance in Terry Johnson’s production of Stephen Jeffrey’s biographical account of the life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester.
If you have heard the title The Libertine, then most likely you will associate it with the Johnny Depp film, released in 2004 and adapted for the big screen by the playwright who wrote the original play Stephen Jeffreys.
But Dominic Cooper certainly has made the role of the Earl of Rochester his own, displaying wonderful arrogance and cold indifference to those around him with just a hint of vulnerability to make him human like in this wonderfully bawdy and sexy production.
The Libertine is certainly one of the most biographical plays to have been staged, with everything that happens being seen from Rochester’s point of view but with the occasional aside from other characters adding additional depth and insight. The audience is invited to join him as he drinks his way around London and taking pleasure where ever he finds it.
But a chance encounter with actress Elizabeth Barry at the playhouse, gives him pause for thought as she is reluctant to accept his help to improve her acting. Could she help lead him on a path of redemption?
Stephen Jeffreys’ play is straight talking (on occasion to the point of being blunt) and absorbing as a portrait is built of this rakish character and the life he led before his tragically early death at the age of 33. Meanwhile, Terry Johnson’s production perfectly captures the Restoration period perfectly, from the details of the costumes to the wonderful bleakness of the set. His vision is relatively bleak, but at the same time it gets right underneath of what life was like for the Earl of Rochester.
The Theatre Royal Haymarket is absolutely the perfect venue to host this production, the gorgeous and grand detailing really highlights the grandeur of the restoration period the production is set in, while designer Tim Shortall’s set has just a hint of glamour but mostly is bleak and filled with signs of wear and tear, perfectly representing Rochester’s downfall.
“Do not warm to me” is the way in which Dominic Cooper makes his presence known to the audience, immediately setting the tone and commanding the attention from the second he steps on stage. His cold and cynical nature is compelling to watch, revealing a very guarded and complicated character particularly evident in his scenes with Elizabeth Malet (Alice Bailey Johnson) which for the most are cold and indifferent, until the last scene in which he realises how destructive his behaviour has become.
There is also strong support from those playing the women in his life. Ophelia Lovibond as Elizabeth Barry is certainly spirited and feisty, particularly when Rochester sets about correcting her acting skills – longing to hold on to her independence. But equally is potentially the key to Rochester’s salvation – if he wanted it: but sadly it never comes to pass. Equally impressive is Alice Bailey Johnson as Rochester’s long suffering wife Elizabeth Malet, whose increasing frustration gains the audience’s sympathy of a wife trapped in her husband’s destructive behaviour.
Some might find that there isn’t much substance to the plot and that there is only so many of Rochester’s drunken incidents that can be included (despite Stephen Jeffreys cutting some incidents out of the play) and it is the way in which his life takes a final destructive turn that should be the main focus. But the second act is certainly more compelling in terms of plot, leading to a surprisingly tender climax scene between Rochester and his wife that leaves the play on a poignant note.
It is a very character driven piece that creates a fascinating portrait of a man whose behaviour and life continues to fascinate today. A very sophisticated and sharp production, featuring a strong and commanding leading performance from Dominic Cooper.
The Libertine plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until the 3rd December. To book tickets visit: Ticketmaster.co.uk, Discount Theatre.com, Last Minute.com, Theatre Tickets Direct.co.uk, Love Theatre.com, Theatre People.com and UK Tickets.co.uk.