“You will not like me,” warns Dominic Cooper as John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, in the opening moments of The Royal Haymarket’s new play The Libertine. And with that, he sets off with his merry band of wits to write bawdy verse, drink consumptive amounts of alcohol and bed as many women as possible. It is the familiar scene of upper class debauched courtiers; bored of themselves, they move through scenes of life at court and on the streets as they desperately search for amusement and meaning.
It is a brilliantly entertaining script, and the Second Earl of Rochester, a helluva central part for a charismatic leading man. This time it is Dominic Cooper that steps up for the challenge and there is no pretence that his presence has had an impact on the crammed seats inside the theatre.
The crowd are anticipatory. We’ve seen Cooper capable of delivering smooth comedic puns, art history quips and literary wit in his break-out role as Dakin in Alan Bennet’s The History Boy’s. Likewise, his portrayal of Dakin’s smouldering charisma and manipulating sexuality was handled with a mixture of sophistication and ballsiness, setting him up perfectly for the unapologetically rakish John Wilmot.
He undoubtedly takes command of the stage and beyond the boozing and debauchery, there are occasions where you feel an interrogating mind at work. In one of the play’s sharpest of scenes, Cooper sabotages the family portrait and prefers to pose with a monkey rather than his wife, revealing both Rochester’s cruel side and his awareness of the absurdity of his existence and in turn the commemoration of it.
His performance is extremely well supported by Ophelia Lovibond as the independent-minded love-interest Elizabeth Barry, Alice Bailey Johnson as Rochester’s long-suffering wife and Jasper Britton, an erratic Charles II who swings from indulging his favourite school friend Wilmot and exorting his full power against him.
The whole show is framed beautifully by Tim Shortall’s set, which incorporates a giant golden frame which sits at the back, filled as the need arises with projected portraits of naked women, or vistas of parkland, court or the behind scenes of a theatre. Opulent chandeliers hang from above and the decrepit brickwork of London’s Elizabethan back-alleys flank the stage. The effect is every aspect of Wilmots world, creeping in on one another.
Lewd and crude, this play strikes as an old-fashioned sex comedy mixed with Blackadder. There are plently of jokes to be had from easy laughs but on occasion it feels like it is trying too hard. Also, the unstable relationship between Wilmot and Charles II never seems quite at the heart of the story nor his growing dependence on the actress Elizabeth Barry or the off-hand relationship with his wife, with whom the climaxing scene is shared.
The show then is entirely centred on Wilmot alone and Coopers final line tentatively asks ‘Do you like me now, do you like me now,’ and then turning to address the audience ‘do you like me now?’