Having recently housed a dismal stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, best known for the 1961 film based on Truman Capote's story, and previously been the home to a stage version of When Harry Met Sally, the grand old Theatre Royal Haymarket could be turning into a staging post for titles that have played at the Cineworld opposite. But although The Libertine, its new tenant that the theatre is co-producing with Bath Theatre Royal, is itself best known for a 2004 film that starred Johnny Depp, at least here the play came first, originally premiering at the Royal Court in 1994.
Then it was commissioned and staged as a companion piece to a production of George Etherege’s restoration comedy The Man of Mode whose protagonist Dorimant was based on the life of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester -- aka The Libertine, just as Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good was originally paired with a production of The Recruiting Officer that is being staged within it. Those pairings were the inspiration of Max Stafford-Clark, one of our most visionary directors, and Our Country's Good has long become a stand-alone hit of its own (most recently revived at the National).
Now it is the turn of The Libertine to stand on its own, too, in a new production directed by Terry Johnson. And although it has a rambunctious energy in its portrayal of court and backstage life in a theatre company during the reign of Charles II, it sometimes feels like it is trying too hard.
Recent plays like The Mr Foote's Other Leg (also seen at the Haymarket) and Nell Gwynn (also set in the court of Charles II) have conjured a similar milieu and atmosphere, though both in my view did so more engagingly and successfully. That's a world of people living -- and dying -- for pleasure; the Earl of Rochester died young, aged 33, after indulging a life of frequent sexual and alcoholic excess (but living on thanks to some famously pornographic poetry).
At 38, Dominic Cooper is a little older than the character he is playing, but he has the dashing ardour of a man who was equally attracted (and attractive) to women and men. I'm not sure he's quite a big enough star draw that the play really needs to draw West End audiences, but Johnson's production is at least no one man show but an evening of real ensemble strength, with terrific work around him that includes Jasper Britton as Charles II, Mark Hadfield as the playwright George Etherege, Ophelia Lovibond as an actress and Nina Toussaint-White as an accommodating prostitute.
It is also sumptuously designed by Tim Shortall and lit by Ben Ormerod with a painterly glow.
What the Press Said...
"Not a full-on flop all told but be warned, if you go seeking after the elixir of lusty excitement you may end up feeling you’ve but quaffed a cup of Earl Grey."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The play may be too lewd for prudes, but it offers an invigorating, warts-and-all portrait of a self-destructive sceptic."
Michael Billington for The Guardian