CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW
John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, was the most notorious rake in Restoration England. Given that he lived during the reign of Charles II, this was no small achievement.
An energetic bisexual, atheist and drinker, Rochester was given to writing bawdy and unambiguously pornographic poems and plays. He died, it is assumed of syphilis, aged just 33, leading Samuel Johnson to write that he had, “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness.”
Such a man cries out for dramatic portrayal, and Stephen Jeffreys’s The Libertine (first presented in Warwick in 1994, and on the cinema screen, with Johnny Depp in the title role, in 2004) obliges with great wit, style and sophistication. If Rochester’s two plays (including one in which his sometime friend, King Charles, is parodied as “Bolloximian: King of Sodom”) want for subtlety, Jeffreys’s bio-drama is their antithesis.
As Dominic Hill’s superb production for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre (transferring to the Bristol Old Vic later this month) makes gorgeously clear, The Libertine is neither a simple celebration nor an indignant condemnation of Rochester’s life of excess. Although it has its undeniable moments of bawdry, the play alights more profoundly upon the moral and psychological crises inherent in the rake’s self-immolation.
Rochester has been compared to modern rock stars (such as Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain) who died too young. There is certainly a strong element of this in Martin Hutson’s nuanced and moving playing of the poet. Rich, successful, feted by a gaggle of friends of dubious loyalty, Hutson’s Rochester betrays an immense vulnerability and emptiness beneath the libidinous egomaniac.
The supporting cast are excellent to an individual. John Hodgkinson’s witty and frightening Charles II strides around the stage cursing the power that the “parliament bastards” have over him; indeed, he is the very embodiment of the Restoration compromise. Gillian Saker and Lucianne McEvoy impress greatly as Rochester’s mistress (Elizabeth Barry) and wife (Elizabeth Malet), while Elexi Walker (as the Earl’s favourite whore, Jane) is the very image of “lavish voluptuousness”.
Envisioned with splendid, Brechtian sparseness by set and costume designer Tom Piper and lighting designer Lizzie Powell, and enhanced by the smartly pertinent music of Hilary Brooks, this outstanding 20th-anniversary production demands one’s attention as surely as did its subject in his raucous heyday.
Until May 24, transferring to Bristol Old Vic, May 28-31. For more information, visit: citz.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 8, 2014
© Mark Brown