The Libertine

DARLINGHURST THEATRE: This extremely powerful production of Stephen Jeffrey’s play about a Restoration rake is by turns bawdy and lewd, poignant and comical.
[This is archived content and may not display in the originally intended format.]
This is an extremely powerful production that is at times bawdy, lewd and rude, very funny yet also extremely sad and moving in parts.

Readers might have seen the 2004 movie version of Stephen Jeffrey’s play starring Johnny Depp; if not, it concerns the extraordinary life and times of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester and his life at the court of Charles II. Rochester wasted his many gifts, was a very heavy drinker, a philanderer, a playwright, poet and a pornographer among other things and died at the age of 33. Although he had money and status he was self destructive, because of his inner vulnerability, insecurity and self loathing.

Jeffrey’s play presents him sympathetically, but from his opening monologue Rochester (Anthony Gooley) warns us not to like him. Gooley is brilliant in the role. A dashing, handsome actor in top form, he is mesmerizing as the Restoration rake. No wonder his wife, Elizabeth (terrifically played by Susan Prior) falls for him. However, Rochester can be rude, self centred, sarcastic and brutal. Elizabeth is treated horrendously – no wonder the marriage falters.

This play is not only a narrative biography of Rochester’s life but raises such issues as the position of women in society at the time. We see events from Elizabeth’s point of view and also from that of actress Lizzy Barry (Danielle King ). Both women struggle to define their place in society, to find independence, freedom and their own voice. We also meet Jane, a whore, and Molly, the equivalent of what would now be called stage manager at the playhouse Rochester frequents.

The play also explores the issue of authority, the ‘divine right’ of kings, and also King Charles’ and Rochester’s very different attitudes to their various responsibilities (to their wives, their mistresses, the running of the estate and/or the country). The political becomes the personal. We see how Charles (brilliantly played by Sean O’Shea) is deeply disappointed in Rochester’s frittering away his life, but also how Rochester (and others) have lost hope in the king.

A lot of the show is hot and steamy, featuring brothel scenes, sex scenes and some nudity. Act Two opens with a rehearsal of Rochester’s play Sodom, a metaphorical attack on Charles II, which while seemingly silly is also quite powerful as there’s a grain of truth behind it (as well as lots of dildos!).

When in disguise as the quack doctor, apparently pleasuring both himself and his female patients – but ripping them off financially – Rochester wears a black cloak, hood and cap and a protective grey plague mask, again a reminder of the times and also possibly shades of Moliere’s plays The Doctor In Spite of Himself and The Imaginary Invalid.

Religion is also important in the text – Rochester is shown as a scandalous, heretical atheist; or is he?

Fittingly, as Rochester was passionate about the theatre – he saw the theatre as a way of analysing the truth about life – The Libertine also features numerous playhouse sequences. We see both backstage scenes and ‘plays within a play’. There are references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and to Dryden’s work, among others, plus Rochester’s own work and that of one of his friends, George Etheridge.

There is some excellent doubling of roles (as Charles Sackville and Mr Harris, James Lugton is excellent; there’s also a terrific performance by Felix Jozeps as Billy Downs and the artist Huysmans). As gruff Alcock, Rochester’s servant, Sam Haft is delightful.

Lucilla Smith’s set design is marvellous – sort of a Miss Haversham-ish Versailles, all dusty smeared mirrors and drapes over the furniture. The production also features metaphorical use of mirrors (how society sees us, how we see ourselves), for example in the use of mirrors backstage at the playhouse.

Mary Rapp’s onstage cello playing is tremendous and the soundscape is just right. Smith’s costumes are superb and extraordinarily detailed, featuring the corsets and masses of layers the women wore, and the hot, itchy wigs, breeches, shirts and jackets worn by men of fashion in the era.

A totally absorbing, enthralling cautionary tale of the downfall and dissolution of a gifted rake.

Rating: Four and a half stars

The Libertine
By Stephen Jeffreys
Directors: Damien Ryan & Terry Karabelas
Designer: Lucilla Smith
Lighting Designer: Matt Cox
Sound Designer: John Karabelas
Original music: Drew Livingston and Sean van Doornum
Featuring: Matt Edgerton, Anthony Gooley, Sam Haft, Felix Jozeps, Danielle King, Naomi Livingston, Alice Livingstone, James Lugton, Sean O’Shea and Susan Prior. Running time: Three hours 15 mins (approx) including interval

Darlinghurst Theatre
August 24 – September 11

Lynne Lancaster
About the Author
Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.