We watched The Libertine starring Dominic Cooper yesterday at the Haymarket Theatre Royal, Stephen Jefferys’ 1994 play portraying the life of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, a real-life historic figure who would make Russell Brand blush, and who was previously portrayed by Johnny Depp (with John Malkovich and Rosamund Pike) in the homonymous 2004 movie.
We hadn’t been back to the Her Majesty’s (its former name) in a while, not since watching Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen a while back. As always, it’s such a beautiful atmosphere and we loved the stage design, so stylish, and none of that abstract indulgence in geometric forms, patterns, and light effects, we’ve seen too often in recent years.
You watch the Earl sleep with a myriad of women or enjoy blow-jobs, on one occasion while his friend the king has sex on a balcony next to him in clear view of the audience, you watch him start his day with a good bottle of claret for breakfast and end it with some heavier stuff a few hours later, you watch him write bad plays and poems, upset his wife, have a portrait taken with a monkey, involve in vandalism and drunken games.
In real life, the Earl was one of the most highly-acclaimed poets of his time and translated classic works of Ovid, Petronius and Seneca into English, a part of his life that didn’t find much reflection in this production of the play, which completely focuses on the debauchery and scandal.
One of the main storylines in this play, largely void of any plot, is the fact that the Earl tries to teach a young actress how to up her game. In real life she became the most successful diva of her day.
We thought that the acting was very good, wildly refreshing, at times very funny, but there is just not enough in the play to make it worthwhile. Hardly anything remarkable happens over vast stretches of the play, the first 45 minutes pass without anything noteworthy happening. There are some nice touches to the play (not new, but nice nonetheless), such as part of the actors freezing and the sound stopping, while two or three actors continue their conversation undisturbed in the spotlight, or how the play starts without a big bang, more fluidly, actresses having started to mingle with the audience, engage in conversation, hand out mandarins, and actors walking and moving about the stage, long before the play officially starts, and so on.