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Dominic Cooper is great in this oddly dour Restoration romp
Nowt to do with Pete Doherty – though I suppose several scenes would ring a bell for him – ‘The Libertine’ is a revival of Stephen Jeffreys’s 1994 play about the notorious John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (famously adapted into a film starring Johnny Depp). A legendary rake, boozer and frenemy of King Charles II, those of you with more ‘progressive’ English teachers may have come across some of Wilmot’s fantastically ribald poetry back in the day.
The play provides a fair vehicle for a lead actor, in this case erstwhile History Boy Dominic Cooper. He’s 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 – I'm not sure think he ever cracks a smile – underachiever, whose wildly provocative behaviour (‘I must always push thing too far’) 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.
He’s good, but one problem with Jeffreys’s play is that almost nobody around Wilmot has any sort of depth whatsoever: they’re just bewigged caricatures of Restoration fops and tarts (though here Jasper Britton is very good as a deceptively deadly Charles II). The other problem is that it’s tonally inconsistent. Formally it nods to Restoration comedy and both halves start in a shower of delightful naughtiness (the first Wilmot’s brilliant monologue, the second a lengthy song about dildos). But in each half director Terry Johnson runs out of funny material to get his teeth into as Wilmot turns to ponderous naval-gazing and it all bogs down in something verging on moralising.
Worth it for Cooper, then, but the play is no classic.