The Libertine

“You will not like me,” insists John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, at the start of The Libertine; not so much presented an unreliable narrator, more the self-created bad boy of Restoration England, determined to be the centre of attention at all times and horrified when one of his companions in wit and hedonism, the playwright “Gentle” George Etherege, fictionalises him in his own play, The Man of Mode, and dares to make the self-declared rake and libertine “endearing”.

Ebullient, nuanced and vigorous piece of theatre.

While Etherege aptly recorded the hedonistic age in which he lived, Stephen Jeffrey’s play (originally performed in 1994, and filmed 10 years later with Johnny Depp in the lead role) suggests that Rochester—atheist, drinker and energetic lover of both women and men—was far too busy living life to excess to spend any time preserving it for eternity. He was a man who always needed to “go too far”in terms of public decency, an addict for theatre because only in the artifice of the playhouse can he feel anything. Of course, as the play certainly doesn’t attempt to hide, Rochester ultimately paid a high price in terms of his health and relationships—dying, presumably of alcoholism and syphilis, but perhaps also of being shunned by his peers, aged just 33.

Jeffreys’ The Libertine is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the man, but therein lies the danger of following Etherege’s lead and presenting Rochester as some ultimately loveable rogue. Thankfully, in this excellent stripped-back revival, director Dominic Hill’s choice of a sharp-edged Martin Hutson in the lead role ensures that, no matter his smile, we’re always aware of the man’s predilection for self-destruction, narcissism and cruelty; of the emptiness that lies underneath the man’s undoubtedly attractive swagger.

Hutson rightfully dominates the stage, even when in his pale-faced decrepitude, but its worth mentioning the fine support he receives from an ensemble cast including Gillian Saker as Rochester’s mistress Elizabeth Barry and Lucianne McEvoy as his wife Elizabeth Malet. Elexi Walker, as Rochester’s (and, indeed, the King’s) favourite whore, Jane adds real flesh and spirit to what could easily be a cliché, while Tony Cownie is always a pleasure to watch, whether as the mouse-like Etherege or the morose painter Jacob Huysmans.

Hill’s production is—in common with many recent productions at the Citz—deliberately stripped of artifice, and all the more effective for it. From the start the audience is faced with a sparse set onto which the cast bring on and then carry off basic props when no longer required; a space where characters lurk among the upstage shadows when not required; and where illustrative backcloths (designed by Tom Piper) slide stage right and left to indicate interiors or exteriors.

At the close, Hutson as Rochester asks if, as an audience, we like him any better now; while the jury may be out on the man and his life, there is surely little doubt about this ebullient, nuanced and vigorous piece of theatre. 

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn

Summerhall

One of Two

★★★★
Scottish Storytelling Centre

Moira in Lockdown

★★★★★
Laughing Horse @ Bar 50

Love and Sex on the Spectrum

★★★★
Royal Lyceum Theatre

Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti

★★

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now

Performances

Location

The Blurb

“Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it, all the time”. You may not like the Second Earl of Rochester. But you will not be able to take your eyes off him.

London in the 1670s - Charles II is on the throne, Nell Gwynn is in his bed, and the theatre and sexual promiscuity are flourishing.

‘The Libertine’ by Stephen Jeffreys is the true story of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester - a hedonistic poet, playwright and rake whose appetite for women and wine has made him a notorious figure. He is a man who does not feel alive unless he exceeds every limit. He’s not easy to like, much less to love. Yet this most charismatic of sinners is forced to reconsider everything he thinks and feels when a chance encounter at the Playhouse sends him reeling.

With all the wit, flair and bawdiness of a Restoration Comedy, this brilliant play is both historical romp and incisive critique of an age of excess. Made famous through the film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and John Malkovich, this is the first major stage production in the UK since its London premiere.

Most Popular See More

Mary Poppins

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Tina - The Tina Turner Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Matilda the Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Mamma Mia!

From £18.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Lion King

From £25.00

More Info

Find Tickets