Poor old Charles II. These days he’s playing second fiddle to almost everything.
If it’s not last week’s 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, it’s Gemma Arterton’s recent portrayal of his famous mistress Nell Gwynn. Jasper Britton brings our most debauched monarch wonderfully to life in Stephen Jeffrey’s The Libertine, but poor Charlie is once again pushed aside, this time being out-rogued by John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester.
Those that like their history on the seedier side will know that Rochester was the epitome of the Restoration’s hedonistic times. Funded by Charles II, he was a self-professed poet and the ringleader of a bunch of upper class reprobates called the “Merry Gang”, who acted like they were on an eternal stag weekend, gambling, drinking, and sleeping their way around London, when they weren’t hanging out in the Restoration’s other den of iniquity – the London theatre.
The play starts with Rochester addressing the audience head on. ‘Allow me to be frank at the commencement,’ he says. ‘You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled.’ Except, of course, that the ladies in the stalls around me weren’t repelled in the slightest. No. In fact, quite the opposite. This was Dominic Cooper addressing them after all, and when he then announced that ‘I am up for it. All the time,’ I thought that even the usually mild-mannered women of Bath were going to cause a stampede. With Jeffrey’s sharp-witted script, Rochester’s opening monologue sets the tone – blunt, crude, delivered with aplomb, and very, very funny.
Rochester is a man of duplicity, playing the dutiful husband when with his long-suffering wife, and the lad-about-town when at court. He was vehemently contemptuous of the decadence around him and yet still enthusiastically participated in it. During seven years of Cromwellian rule the nation had been starved of fun. Charles was intent on restoring that balance (and leading by example). The Merry Gang spend most of their time thinking or talking about sex (that is, of course, when they’re not having it) so it’s hardly surprising that the smut comes thick and fast. Some moments are so thick with innuendo that they narrowly avoid falling into ‘Carry On’ territory, and if you’re adverse to seeing fake men’s appendages thrust about you might want to give this a miss.
It’s Rochester’s encounter with the actress Elizabeth Barry that forms the pivotal plot of the story. She’s a spirited, strong minded woman who proves herself a sharp-tongued match to the Earl, with her spiky retorts and couldn’t-care-less gestures. She flatly refuses to fall for his charms; and yet (of course) eventually does. Like the great actress Barry became, relative newcomer Ophelia Lovibond lights up the theatre every time she walks onstage.
There is, in fact, more historical truth in the play than you might expect. Rochester and Barry did meet in 1673, and she became his mistress, the affair lasting for five years, ending shortly before his death. An incident with a sundial and the accidental death of one of the Merry Gang, followed by Rochester’s disappearance, also took place, as did a scene in which the Flemish artist, Jacob Huysmans, painted Rochester with a monkey. (The painting sold at Sotherby’s auction house in 2014 for £600,000.) Whether his wife’s irate response to this, as scripted, really took place, we will never know, but the scene is one of the play’s highlights. Rochester’s contemporaries get a regular nod, including a running joke about Tamburlaine, and the opening scene in which the Merry Gang savagely pick a new poem by king’s laureate, Dryden, to pieces, barely hiding their artistic jealousy.
It’s the scenes depicting life at the London theatres though that offer the most entertainment, and the most insight. It is easy to forget – and perhaps a minor quibble that Jeffrey’s does not make more of this – that for eighteen years up to Charles’ restoration the theatres had been closed by Parliament, only reopening in 1660. Before then women had not been allowed to perform professionally on the stage (the first being Anne Marshall, who played Desdemona). None of this background is referred to but it’s clear that thirteen years later when Rochester first encounters Barry there has been a shift in perception. That said, there are some acute and funny observations about back stage life, and one scene where a cast member has to act over the disruptions of a bored crowd makes you realise how restrained and polite theatregoers have become, even when faced with a virile Dominic Cooper.
At the end Rochester asks if we like him yet. However it’s the combined charm of Cooper, Rochester, and Jeffrey’s script that have kept us rooting for someone Samuel Pepys famously called ‘an idle rogue.’ Throughout most of this entertaining romp Rochester makes much of the fun he has with being bad, and yet only in the closing scenes do we learn that, like the world of theatre around him, Rochester’s bravado is nothing but a façade.
The Libertine plays at the Theatre Royal Bath until September 17th 2016 and then for a ten-week season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, from September 22nd 2016.
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room and Devastation Road, out now in paperback.
- Dominic Cooper as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester © Johan Perrson
- John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, National Portrait Gallery