Review: The Libertine at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Dominic Cooper makes a wonderfully callous Earl of Rochester in this hugely appealing revival.

Set against the backdrop of Restoration England, Stephen Jeffreys’ The Libertine has undergone substantial changes since its premiere back in 1994, but has lost none of its entertainment value and sharp wit in that time. It was, and remains, an incisive and enlightening commentary on monarchy, aristocracy and the merits of language as an art. Our protagonist is the boozy Earl of Rochester (Dominic Cooper), a real-life peer infamous for his sexual affairs and outlandish behaviour, who cut a striking figure in England in the late 1600s.

Cooper is not unfamiliar with arrogant, sex-obsessed characters. His first major role after graduating from drama school was as cavalier schoolboy Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys at The National Theatre, one which he later reprised on Broadway as well as the silver screen. Although a world away from 1980s grammar schools and Oxbridge entrance exams, his portrayal of John Wilmot, the swarthy Earl of Rochester, in Terry Johnson’s production of The Libertine is equally potent (in every sense) and a suitable sign if one were needed that Cooper has firmly graduated from peppy adolescent to first class bachelor with honours in the theatre world.

His opening speech sets the tone for an engaging and hugely endearing piece of theatre, as a swaggering and sexually brimming Rochester beseeches the audience not to warm to him. Here is a man riddled with flaws and contradictions, and the strength of the narrative comes from Jeffreys’ ability to reveal the story in such a way as to slowly dissect his subject’s particular weaknesses, finally laying them bare for all to see. The dialogue is equal parts funny and devastating, and is delivered excellently by a uniformly strong cast, who bring a rousing ensemble feel to the piece, with plenty of boisterous hollering and a constant through-line of playfulness.

Aside from Cooper’s superb performance, Ophelia Lovibond as the fiery actress Elizabeth Barry, our Earl’s would-be protégée, has a lot of fun with a wonderful role. Her dry delivery and wry comic timing, paired with an ability to bring a striking honesty to the subtler moments in the play, is a real highlight. Strong support also comes from Jasper Britton as Charles II, whose elegant and fanciful demeanour as the monarch thinly veils a much more urgent and threatening sense of regal menace.

Overall, The Libertine is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre which grapples with some big historical events in an accessible and entertaining way. And even if our sex-obsessed hero barely shows us anything more than a hint of his smooth, contoured chest even at his most raunchy moments, it’s certainly worth a visit.

GT gives  The Libertine — 4/5

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