Review: Dominic Cooper in The Libertine (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Dominic Cooper stars as the Second Earl of Rochester in this revival of Stephen Jeffreys’ play

It’s a bold play that begins with its leading man addressing the audience and telling them firmly: "You will not like me." The problem with The Libertine is that not only did I not like its anti-hero, the Reformation poet and wit John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, I didn’t much like the play either. It purports to be revealing, but ends up as a bore.

In all honesty, I’ve never quite understood the fuss about Rochester. After all, we don’t see plays and films about John Dryden, a better poet, but equally lost in the mists of time. The difference is that Dryden was dull and part of the establishment, whereas Rochester was an angry, womanising rake, who died of drink and disease at the age of 33. His mother was so worried about the licentious nature of the writing he left behind, that she destroyed most of it – which was curiously good for his reputation.

Rochester’s place for posterity was also secured by the fact that his friend, the playwright George Etherege may or may not have based the libertine Dorimant in The Man of Mode on him. More recently, he has been celebrated for his peculiarly cynical savagery, an out of jointedness with his own times which has somehow fascinated our own.

Stephen Jeffreys’ play, first seen in 1994, much rewritten in the intervening years and the basis of the movie starring Johnny Depp, is part of the reason the poet has stayed in the public eye. It has in its favour a slickly amusing script, and a stonking central part for a charismatic leading man. John Malkovich played it in Chicago; Dominic Cooper is the star attraction here. He brings a saturnine assurance to Rochester, without perhaps ever finding quite the devilish charm or the depths of despair that make him a subject of interest. It’s a confident performance, but one that lacks much modulation.

The production around him looks very handsome with Tim Shortall’s set dominated by a giant picture frame, filled as the need arises with projected portraits of naked women, or vistas of parkland, or the bare backbones of a theatre. Terry Johnson keeps the action moving briskly through some sharply observed scenes of life at court and on the streets, with a lot of good-hearted whores giving the Merry Monarch, Charles II, and his courtiers, a jolly good time. Mark Hadfield is warmly down-to-earth as Etherege, Jasper Britton makes a chilling Charles, switching in an instant between friendship and authority and Will Barton is an effectively dour servant.

It is intermittently entertaining but the play never dips very deep beneath the surface. Although there’s a certain amount of pondering about the difference between theatre and life in the sections where Rochester courts the actress Elizabeth Barry, there’s not much explanation of his general dyspepsia or of the nature of the times in which he lived. So The Libertine ends up as a fairly straight-forward biographical study. And as one damn thing follows another and Rochester hurtles towards his end, it is just rather dull.

The Libertine runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 2 December.