The Libertine

Previewed 22 September 2016, Opened 27 September 2016, Closed 3 December 2016 at the Haymarket Theatre in London

A major revival of Stephen Jeffreys' play The Libertine in London starring Dominic Cooper and directed by Terry Johnson.

Set in the 1670s, this play tells the true story of the hedonistic John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, who is forced to reconsider everything he thinks and feels when a chance encounter with an actress at the Playhouse sends him reeling.

The cast features Dominic Cooper as 'John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester' with Jasper Britton as 'Charles II' and Mark Hadfield as 'Etherege' along with Alice Bailey Johnson, Will Barton, Cornelius Booth, Will Merrick, Lizzie Roper, Richard Teverson, Nina Toussaint-White and Ophelia Lovibond. Directed by Terry Johnson with designs by Tim Shortall, lighting by Ben Ormerod, music by Colin Towns, sound by John Leonard.

Dominic Cooper's credits include playing the role of 'Sky' in the movie adaptation of the stage musical Mamma Mia London. His London theatre credits include the role of 'Dakin' in Nicholas Hytner's original production of Alan Bennett's play The History Boys both on stage and on film (National Theatre 2004 and Broadway), Nicholas Hytner's staging of Nicholas Wright's adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (National Theatre 2003) and Nicholas Hytner's staging of Mark Ravenhill's play with songs Mother Clap's Molly House (National Theatre 2001).

When this production opened here at the Haymarket Theatre in September 2016, Michael Billington in the Guardian explained that "Terry Johnsonís production and Tim Shortallís design, with its gilded proscenium arch, astutely remind us of the constant tension between theatre and life, and Dominic Cooper is totally commanding as Rochester... The play may be too lewd for prudes, but it offers an invigorating, warts-and-all portrait of a self-destructive sceptic." Henry Hitchings in the London Evening Standard wrote that "Terry Johnsonís revival has energy and charm, with Tim Shortallís design evoking the periodís extravagant fashions. But whatís missing is a sense of real danger. Rochesterís debauchery never exactly feels rampant, and the world he inhabits could seem more fascinatingly filthy. Although Dominic Cooper guarantees a degree of smouldering allure, the atmosphere of The Libertine isnít sexy enough." Quentin Letts for the Daily Mail commented how, "despite its flaws, the evening probes the aimlessness of amorality. It could do with toning down the ooh-la-la sexiness a few notches and giving quieter reflection to the sub-themes of Godlessness and the shallowness of sybarites who fight the passage of time." Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph highlighted that Dominic Cooper "should be in his testosteronecharged element here, showing off his peacock feathers to maximum advantage. And yet the actor sucks on this plum role with too much restraint." Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times thought that "Dominic Cooper is excellent casting, combining as he does an attractive magnetism with the hint that at any moment it might all go explosively to hell. Terry Johnson and his cast relish the sheer filth of Rochester's oeuvre, culminating early in Act Two with a rehearsal of the play Sodom (not historically proven as Rochester's work) and a sweet musical ode from the ladies of the company to 'Signor Dildo', complete with props and gestures. You have been warned." Ann Treneman in the Times said that "Terry Johnson directs and, though there is much falling about, lusting and lunging, he also gives centre stage to the language, as rich as fruit cake, sumptuous, silly, rude, poetic. But, mostly, often, frankly, it's all just a bit silly... The night really belongs to Dominic Cooper though, virile, unpredictable, teetering on the edge of darkness. It's a fine performance, and in a periwig too." Neil Norman in the Daily Express described it as being "a robust, faux-Restoration play which aims to expose the royal court as debauched, wasteful and morally corrupt... Dominic Cooper brings an arrogant swagger to Wilmot but doesn't possess the necessary danger or quite elicit the pity we should have for the anti-hero who chose self-destruction through dissipation over longevity as an artist."

The Restoration was the first period in English history to turn gossip into major literature, for example Samuel Pepys's Diary, and much of the verse satire which came into vogue in the 1660s and 1670s was written by, and about, people in the news, especially the 'courtwits'. Chief among these writers was John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester (1 April 1647 - 26 July 1680), who was not only one of the leading satirists of the day, but also one of the people most gossiped about. He was dangerously attractive, unusually truthful and personally reckless - according to Dr Johnson, Rochester 'blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness' - and a poet whose account of 17th-century life still makes readers wince. Until the 20th century no one wrote more frankly and more funnily about sex that Rochester did. His work struck a chord in the Sixties and in 1968 Yale University Press published the first serious Rochester edition. Since then there have been critical studies, and some biographical books. Jerermy Lamb's 1993 study So Idle a Rogue, which judges the hard-drinking Rochester by the rules of Alcoholics Anonymous, is one of the chief sources behind Stephen Jeffreys' biographical drama The Libertine.

The Earl of Rochester is unique among pre-20th-century English writers in the range of sexual experience he describes - especially in his depiction of womnen's sexuality (and of men's limitations). It helped that he was close to some extremely intelligent and independent women, including Elizabeth Malet - his wife; Elizabeth Barry - an actress and his mistress; and Aphra Behn - the first English woman to earn her living as a writer. As The Libertine emphasises, Rochester loved men as much as women, and his work was often written in collaboration with men, Etherege among them. They were men who learned their drinking habits from their Cavalier fathers (Rochester was himself the son of a Cavalier general) and their literary tastes from the libertines in France, where the royal court had been exiled during the Civil Wars. Rochester was educated at Burford and Oxford, were, gossip reported, he was debauched by a Merton College don. By the time he was 20, he had travelled in Europe, fought in the naval wars against the Dutch, and abducted in a stagecoach the young heiress Elizabeth Malet, whom he married in 1667. He subsequently pursued a complicated extra-marital sex-life, turned into a drunk, was involved in a brawl inn which a man was killed, and went into hiding passing himself off as a gynaecologist. Meanwhile he was one of the best writers of his time. When he died in 1680 he was just 33. In this play, Stephen Jeffreys ignores the Earl's spoiled spirituality, and presents him as a Restoration angry young man - a kind of Jimmy Porter in a wig. He also falls for the temptation to quote from the most shocking, least subtle poems, Jeffreys is more convincing on the poet's relationships, suggesting that his spectacular decline in the late 1670s was related to his mistress Elizabeth Barry's growing success as an actress independent of his patronage. Stylistically, the play oscillates between pastiche, quotation and heavy anachronism, and Jeffreys admits to having been torn between historical get-it-all-in-ism and letting his imagination loose.

"For all the cynical charm of Dominic Cooper's central performance, his opening assertion that 'You will not like me' proves all too true and the play is unengaging. Jeffreys' writing, an uneasy mixture of archaism and anachronism, has moments of wit and the scenes between Rochester and his wife and mistress are touching. But the work is unstructured and unfocused and the incorporation of Rochester's salacious play, Sodom, is not only ahistorical but absurd. The problems are compounded by Terry Johnson's raucous production, which barely distinguishes between scenes at court, in the brothel and the playhouse. The relentless high jinks and high decibels turn the evening into Carry On Rake." The Sunday Express

"Stephen Jeffreys's witty and literate script... The charismatic Dominic Cooper ó challenges us to dislike him from the start. He insults and offends against every moral convention he can find, because they're all phoney and we're really just animals. Isn't he outrageous? Aren't we shocked? Cooper's performance makes him rough and likeable, energetic, angry, tormented, and finally a claret-slurping physical wreck... Terry Johnson's direction is elegant but underpaced, and the story stutters along, with too much elegiac and reflective stuff near the end. Tim Shortall's sets are lovely to look at, though... It's a bawdy, colourful and amiably acted entertainment that can't really take the weight of the art-v-life philosophising loaded onto it, but a jolly night out nevertheless." The Sunday Times

"Director Terry Johnson cheerfully celebrates the playís theatricality and in-yer-face eroticism, staging it on a rough platform backed by vast framed projections of oil paintings of fleshy entwined lovers or, when necessary, a pastoral scene or mouldering attic... Unfortunately, this untidy play falls somewhere between being a rollicking Restoration romp and a searching portrait of a fascinating, fearless libertine. Stephen Jeffreys overstuffs it with idiot aristos and Carry On comedy and includes only a snatch or two of Rochesterís marvellous poetry. The Earlís moral and spiritual crises are hurried add-ons, and in spite of super-dooper Dominic Cooperís considerable skills, his Rochester is an arrogant, unlikeable Bullingdon bore." The Mail on Sunday

"Commuters in London will have seen photographs of a saturnine Dominic Cooper, surrounded by semi-clad women, on posters for The Libertine all over the Underground. Showing him with shirt open, oozing belligerent sex appeal, it's a great teaser for the debauched antics of the eponymous anti-hero in Stephen Jeffreys' play. The Libertine was aka the Earl of Rochester, an infamous poet and boozer who shagged his way through half of 17th century London. Yet in Terry Johnson's revival, Cooper never quite finds his feet in this juicy role of the larger-than-life cad about town, a man whose gargantuan sexual appetites are matched only by his capacity for self-disgust. Johnson's gorgeously lit production is handsome and well served by a strong ensemble cast... Cooper swaggers through the brothels of London with an air of entitlement that befits his status as the king's favoured playwright, but it's telling that when he demands oral sex from his favourite whore, he is unable to get it up. Yet as he recklessly toys with the ego of his patron, you never quite buy into the seedy world he inhabits - the fault of a production whose air of opulent decay feels more painterly than lived in. Cooper intelligently maps out the inevitable trajectory of Rochester's syphilitic self-destruction, but his performance lacks a crucial thrust of danger." The London Metro

The Libertine in London at the Haymarket Theatre previewed from 22 September 2016, opened on 27 September 2016 and closed on 3 December 2016.