RIGHT from the start, you can tell that we’re supposed to be fascinated by the figure of the Earl of Rochester, the notorious 17th century rake at the centre of Stephen Jeffreys’s 1994 Royal Court play, now revived at the Citizens’ Theatre.
The Libertine - Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
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On he comes, in Martin Hutson’s intense, slight-looking, almost boyish performance, informing us that we won’t like him, won’t warm to him, but to judge by the complicit laughter the speech invites, his warning is just another aspect of his irresistible charm.
Born into the aristocratic purple during the English Civil War, John, Earl of Rochester, was just 13 years old when King Charles II was restored to the throne, and therefore well placed to benefit from all the licence and liberty of England’s new post-Puritan age.
What makes him interesting, though, is not so much his whoring and drinking as his attempt – through bawdy poetry and other writing – to provide a philosophical justification for his amoral attitude, and for his arrogant and dismissive view of Britain’s new “Merry Monarch”.
And what’s wrong with Stephen Jeffreys’s play is that instead of exploring the construction of Rochester’s amoral persona, and its deep connection with the spirit of the age so brilliantly exposed in Howard Barker’s great play Victory, it simply assumes our complicity with his rebellious stance, and then requires our sympathy as he succumbs to syphilis and drink, and indulges in a disappointingly soppy death-bed affair with a feisty and gifted actress.
In Dominic Hill’s characteristically rich and free-flowing production, the women in his life are brilliantly played by Gillian Saker (the mistress) and Lucianne McEvoy (the wife). Both are allowed one or two powerful speeches, and make the most of their chances.
For the last two-thirds of the play, though, we’re required to watch Rochester indulging in acres of drunk-acting, as he totters on a stick and then slumps in a wheelchair, drinking himself to death, and holding forth about theatre. The assumption is that all of this will be thrilling and intriguing to the audience.
Yet in truth, not all the glory of Dominic Hill’s production – Tom Piper’s gorgeous, dusty sets, Lizzie Powell’s moody lighting, or a series of fine performances in supporting roles – can save this play from its tedious bourgeois obsession with the centrality of male art and ego as embodied by a character who tells us at the outset how little we will care about his fate, and then spends a long three hours proving himself dead right.
Seen on 07.05.14
• Until 24 May