John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, is a familiar figure. He’s the real-life equivalent of George Etherege’s “Man of Mode” and Aphra Behn’s “Rover” — a licentious anti-hero of the Restoration era. Stephen Jeffreys’s spoofish 1994 satire “The Libertine,” now on the West End, makes an example of the man — namely, that a lifetime’s cavorting comes with its consequences. Played by “Preacher” star Dominic Cooper, Rochester’s debauched lifestyle ultimately catches up with him — just as it will the rest of us — and Jeffreys use the theater of the time to implicate his contemporary audience. We live, he suggests, in libertine times.
Set during the reign of King Charles II (Jasper Britton), a period of British history that let the louche off the leash, “The Libertine” revels in rich men’s revelry. Rochester and his gang of literary snarks, including Mark Hadfield’s Etherege, swing from the coffee shops to the playhouses via the brothels, boozing and bonking as they go. For Wilmot himself, it’s respite from a staid country wife (Alice Bailey Johnson) and a dull rural existence, but to what end? For all its fleeting joys, he sees the emptiness of the cavalier lifestyle. Frock coats and periwigs are shallow to him and salaciousness has become status quo. Looking up from a blow job, he sees the king rutting away. All Rochester can do is lie back and think of England.
Jeffreys’ script is more intricate that it initially lets on. It cracks down the middle: its first half a Restoration-style romp; its second, a reckoning that, like the theater of the time, seeks something more truthful. His language veers from highfalutin foppery to lowly vulgarity, and the action from city to country and court to gutter. As Rochester and company reflect their moment in their plays, Jeffreys asks what belongs on the stage: wit or truth, power or poverty, honesty or hope?
It’s a natural disruptive impulse that takes Rochester to the theater, where he falls in love with an actress ahead of her time, Elizabeth Barry (Ophelia Lovibond). Other stars glide through the artful stock postures, but she alone seeks truth and real beauty. The theater’s artifice mirrors the age of appearances, but it does more than that too. It puts us in the crosshairs of Jeffreys’ satire.
Commissioned by the king, Rochester serves up a filthy erotica called “Sodom,” complete with an ode to “Senor Dildo,” only for Charles to greet it with glee. The moment’s a palpable hit: an artist undone by his patron. If the theater’s part and parcel of the playboy lifestyle, can it ever really function as a protest? Bourgeois audiences lap up their own lampooning — just as we do now. We’re rakes, says Jeffreys, not radicals.
Trouble is, Terry Johnson’s staging never finds the language to articulate all this. Tim Shortall’s design puts the action on a raised wooden stage, but it’s practical, not critical. It’s all too restrained when it romps — the shagging’s about as racy as a school sports day — and too poised when it comes crashing down.
Cooper’s the same. He cuts a dashing figure as Rochester, but never really plumbs the depths. The actor does arrogance and enviable ease without trying, but while he’s haughty and aloof, he’s also too much the bright, bored young thing. He oozes ennui but no sense of disdain — for others, for life, for himself or the world — and certainly nothing of the “punk in a frock coat,” as Rochester’s been described. His disruption’s a pastime, not a political act. He’s churlish but easily shrugged off, despite insisting — commanding — that we not like him. Cooper’s louche, but never loathsome.
That simplifies his comeuppance. Rochester ends riddled by alcoholism and VDs. Propped up by his cane, Cooper creaks and cranes, but he’s a posture of pain, not a body in agony. Removing his periwig, he’s still handsome where he ought to be haggard. This is a bungee cord role: stretched to his least likeable, Rochester should spring back to our sympathy. Cooper skirts the part’s challenge, too charming a rake to raise hackles.