And the spark of the Restoration revelry fires up with the arrival of the titular Libertine, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. 'You won't like me' he smoulders, speaking straight to the audience.
Of course the allure of a bad boy isn't dimmed by frills or frock coats; Rochester is the original lusty romantic, the poster boy for 17th century excess.
Since Stephen Jeffreys' The Libertine premiered at the Royal Court in 1994 and was adapted into a 2004 film starring Johnny Depp, it has brought the Earl of Rochester's life story to the popular public imagination. And the tale of courtly playboy whose sexual excesses resulted in undignified demise and death from a cocktail of venereal disease is juicier than fiction.
As you'd expect from the author of raunchy romp poem 'A Ramble in St James's Park' (impossible to read without blushing), Wilmot was a prolific philanderer, with an insatiable appetite for copulation, claret and calling the King a c**t. Such risque wit and theatricality lends itself easily to lively entertainment, belly laughs, spectacle and silliness.
Predictably, Dominic Cooper steals the show, playing Wilmot with magnetism and charisma. But he balances the charm and moments of malaise with an intensity that burns beneath the surface. He is no flippant philanderer, but a man motivated by nihilism.
The play goes beyond the brothels and banter to explore the broader political context and celebrate the stage history of an era where the playhouse was the beating heart of the city. Woman were allowed to act, John Dryden loomed large over the literary landscape (a sitting duck for satire) and the raucous scenes in the audience pit were far more thrilling than those on stage.
The gang of Wits and their sharp satirical jibes will have theatre swots and English Literature graduates tittering - though don't quite translate the 17th century literary landscape and appetite for parody to the uninitiated. With the Globe's superlative Nell Gywnn still fresh in our minds, this version of the Restoration stage feels a little dustier and drier, despite the lusty subject matter.
The thrust of life and interest in the play is wrapped up in Wilmot. And the inevitability of his fate makes the second half of the play lag, limping onwards like its now crippled central character.
|The Libertine, Theatre Royal Haymarket review
|Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18 Suffolk Street, London, SW1Y 4HT | MAP
|Piccadilly Circus (underground)
22 Sep 16 – 03 Dec 16, 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
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