FringeReview UK 2016
In reviving Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 The Libertine at the Haymarket Terry Johnson paces a further-pared text. In a single design Tim Shorthall manages in gold upper and nether turquoise, with a backdrop gilt-framed portraits apparating at minute-intervals. Ben Ormerod’s lighting keys Restoration shadows racing across tavern furniture sprawled below. Colin Towns supplies music, both choral and instrumental.
Terry Johnson’s pacey revival at the Haymarket of Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 The Libertine reminds us what a vertiginously masterly play it is. From Prologue to Epilogues, it’s a pre-determined tearing up of a biopic with a single design that Tim Shorthall managed of gold upper and shabby nether turquoise, with a superb backdrop gilt-framed almost convincing you that giant portraits – nudes and receding galleries – apparate at minute-intervals. Ben Ormerod’s lighting keys tenebrous Restoration shadows racing across the tavern furniture sprawled below. Colin Towns supplies music, both choral and instrumental, both warm and darkly apposite.
There’s a literally delicious preset with prostitutes and oranges, tossed to some in the front row. picking up the Restoration Nell Gwynne trope ‘oranges are not the only fruit’ – something the prologue addresses. The only thing to do is munch and outstare the actor talking of latecomers and buying oranges.
Dominic Cooper is up for it, as he tells the audience. His feline looks counter the feral John Malkovich of the original. He’s sexier, less intellectually rapacious more convincingly the lover, lustier, perhaps less the lost intellectual. Cooper feels along the spider’s web of line, hissing out syllables that cannot repel as others might. He’s robust too, beguilingly close to the sexiest class of vampire.
John ‘Johnny’ Wilmot Second Earl of Rochester, ‘grand poete et home de génie’ as Voltaire alter called him, isn’t boasting, it’s ‘a bone hard fact’. But he doesn’t want us to like him. ‘It will not serve.’ It does though, in this latest version: Jeffreys’ film version concludes differently, but as Jeffrey put it he’s torn between extravagant language and even in twenty years a further paring down for a new audience. There’s some of Rochester himself deleted, found in the 1994-2010 edition as if humankind can bear very little poetry. The lampoon on Charles and the address to Rochester’s great love Barry are excised.
1675; following a Restoration prologue a Restoration scene: in a coffee-house Johnny’s friends Sackville (Earl of Dorset) and (Sir George) Etherege sift the latest Dryden play, ‘good bits, bad bits’ to parody. A pox-painted Richard Teverson spins warm choler to Mark Hadfield’s Etherge who develops through happy second fiddle to the sudden eminence he later enjoys; his whole countenance sharpens.
What they don’t know, complaining of Rowley aka Charles II and his banishment of Rochester, is that said rake is about to burst in on them, parodying the bad Dryden bit. What Rochester doesn’t know is that lazy Etherege’s Man of Mode is about to burst in on the world, one of the four finest plays of that tremendous silver age of theatre. It’s based on Rochester. Dangerously, Rochester asks if it makes him endearing, then reflects the truth would terrify. Rochester’s great poetry is almost all written and we get scrap filets of it.
We get Dryden too, and it’s the whore Jane who pinpoints a gravy stain marks a good bit, since a poet always rewards themselves after writing one. Food writing and sex splatter together in Jeffreys’ vivid, terse almost poetic brilliance. He needs it when he’s quoting Dryden as well as Rochester
…..think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give
I’m tired of waiting for this chemic gold
which fools us young, and beggars us when old.
‘Sprightly Running’ was claimed by poet John Wain as a premature autobiography. The whole passage reminds us the greatest unread Anglophone poet (more readable than Spenser) bestrid the age, recasting even Milton’s entire Paradise Lost in rhymed couplets!
Jeffreys’ Rochester warns us not to like him, and immediately prophesies destruction for the sixteen-year old Cambridge student Downs who wants to live briefly a ‘spark’. Nina Touissant-White’s warm pragmatist Jane enlivens her role, believably sassy yet sexy. Jane hates caring for Rochester so much, Rochester’s curse on his closest women.
And not just women. Alcock, Rochester’s serving man taken on for his dishonesty turns loyal. Will Barton’s deft linking of divers debauches of Rochester’s life satisfies a Leporello-like relationship to his own Don Juan; but his grounding influence weighs in differently, like good lead shot in a pocket.
But Jeffreys omits the possibility that Rochester had Dryden beaten up by hired bravos. He reflects it’s a question of what to leave out. Thus we can’t see where Voltaire’s praise fell, on the magnificent ‘Satire against Reason and Mankind’, or yet the tender brilliance of such lyrics as ‘An age in her embraces/would seem but a winter’s day.’ Jeffreys smuggles in as much poetry as he can, and we should be up for it.
Rochester’s been banished for inadvertently pulling out the wrong poem to quote for the king in front of foreign dignitaries and being unable to stop, which Charles II knows too. It’s alas a lampoon on Charles’s fading sexual prowess ending ‘All monarchs I hate/From the Hector of France to the cully of Britain’ so he’s been banished. But he’s also Charles’ surrogate son, and the indulgent almost roistering and intellectually agile Charles expects great literary feats from him.
Jasper Britton has hit a peak from his Barabas in the RSC’s The Jew of Malta in 2015, and his voice here shows it. He dominates the stage when he strides or swives. ‘I’m up Big Dolly’ he booms from a gallery conversing with Rochester rogering Jane flaccidly below, a volte face from the poem: he quotes another, sadder piece after the king departs.
It’s the first mark too of the way Cooper thrubs his vitality out, using this as an arc to trace his physical decline, something that marks his performance as both visceral but most of all embodied.
A triangle of pressures runs Rochester rampant: the king’s literary tasking, his wife Elizabeth Malet (Alice Bailey Johnson) whom he’d eloped with, a genuine love-match; and the stage Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond) whom only Rochester realizes strives for a new naturalism. Despite fiery passes he coaches her to become herself. She falls for him of course. Lovibond’s defiant, vulnerable, tender, her degrees of falling convincing; she falls as an equal for the first time in Rochester’s life.
Jeffrey’s classic symmetries allow for collision. Rochester trains women in a new masque for the King: the second half opens with his original Monsieur Dildo rhymes set a cappella by Colin Towns, a chorus of dildos rampant. Charles’ feline appraisal and gradual dismemberment of the occasion is classically political, all aimiable then something else. Rochester’s sparky friends shift too, first because it’s Etherege’s play that’s put on; power relations shift. Several excursions deteriorate, with more dire consequences than the killing of time (Charles’ new sundial). Rochester’s actions are read perhaps unfairly and for the first time he’s branded a coward.
It’s pivotal, no less for being prophesied. As the men fall away, friendship and patronage cooling, the pith of the drama oscillates between Malet and Barry, with Lizzie Roper’s mother-hen stage manager Luscombe acting as chorus to all Barry’s business. Rochester protests: ‘When I met you I was, in that instant, delivered from still life.’ But he’s been too demanding, too destructive.
Their great scene is a triangle depending on Barry: and even here now shorn of Rochester’s lyric ‘Leave this gaudy, gilded stage’ – because Jeffreys’ own powers show how futile that insert seems – the harrowing rejection is made all the more moving through the arc Lovibond’s tears, banishing Rochester through her teeth.
It’s a tremendous Restoration climax and has to be seen. Lovibond refuses to stop loving Rochester, even now, and this confirms her in the triad including Malet and Jane, who all settle accounts in some way. Jeffreys’ Rochester could never enjoin Barry to leave the stage. She’s more alive, both he and Luscombe reflect, than they are. Roper brings out Luscombe’s complete subjection to Barry: she lives only when she sees Barry perform. So does Rochester. It’s one of the great realisations of theatre and life.
Bailey Johnson has to unstiffen from her predestined radiance, particularly when Rochester adopts a monkey to pose with (a real portrait) and the final scene brings mastery, her heroic sally to save Rochester. In a poem not quoted here he cedes ‘to your fair bum the breeches’ and Jeffreys takes his cue.
The coup here is different from the film where Depp’s Rochester delivers what’s in effect Dryden’s job: rescuing Charles from the Exclusion Crisis (his Catholic brother’s hated succession) in his great Absalom and Achitophel. How Jeffreys relishes this irony; perhaps Rochester might have. To those who know the film only, the end’s a surprise. It returns too to images from mocking dialogue between Rochester and Downs about universities with angels dancing on pins, but to very different effect.
Perhaps if Jeffreys had known the tremendous éclat of this production in advance, he might have undone some cuts. What he has assured us of is the finest, shrewdest, darkly poetic play of these times the centuries between have ever known.