Staged for the first time since its premiere in 1994, Stephen Jeffrey‘s The Libertine is not subtle or surprising but Dominic Hill‘s enjoyable version charms with wit and swagger, much like the man himself.
The Libertine is John Wilmot (Martin Hutson), the achingly charismatic 2nd Earl of Rochester, applauded wild child of King Charles II’s court, whose appetite for wine, women and all the extremes of pleasure is insatiable, and that’s exactly how he likes it.
Liberal swearing and enough phallic metaphors to make Freud weep, The Libertine’s commitment to Carry On style rudeness is exemplary. Although hugely pleasing, there’s a niggle that Rochester’s “extreme” behaviour should encompass more than some drunken whoring and smashing up the King’s prized sundial.
Hill’s witty direction plays expertly on The Libertine‘s preoccupation with truth and artifice. Breaking the fourth wall from the start, the cast warm-up onstage as the audience arrive, while Tom Piper’s painted-panel set gives idyllic watercolour backdrops to the action both inside and outside Johnny’s Playhouse, continually reminding us of the façade of social-acceptability that Rochester is trying so desperately to smash.
Hutson revels in the role of Rochester, holding the audience’s attention with stage-filling swagger and a feral ego that fits a man committed to methodically wasting his life. However, for a person that so sneeringly rebuffs the audience’s “affection”, Hutson never quite plumbs the darkest depths of the character. In the end, when he asks coldly ‘Do you like me now?’, the audience still responds with a sheepish ‘yes’.
The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Lucianne McEvoy as Rochester’s discarded wife, whose determination to stick by her husband is by far the play’s most affecting performance. John Hodgkinson is a scene-stealing Charles II, while Andy Clark and Tony Cownie as Rochester’s drinking buddies provide belly laughs by the bucket load.
Never quite as shocking as it wants to be, The Libertine is a nevertheless a boisterous romp of a show that revels in its Restoration-era trappings and a cast of lurid characters to ensure a hugely enjoyable night out.