By Gillian Furmage
The life of John Wilmot, the infamous Second Earl of Rochester, is colourfully, bawdily and richly painted by Stephen Jeffrey’s The Libertine.
From the outset of the production, the Earl, played enigmatically by Martin Hutson, is completely in command of both the stage and the audience. Despite proclaiming “You will not like me” to his audience, his obvious charm and eloquence mean that the crowd stays with him, even as the play sinks into darker and darker territory.
For a play that explores the world of Royal opulence, the set is surprisingly sparse and simple, although smart stage direction keeps the action fresh and re-imagines the ‘play within a play’, continually altering the audiences’ perception.
The highlight of the sumptuous show were some stand out performances, notably the swaggering Earl himself, and Tony Cownie and Andy Clark as playwright George Etheridge and Charles Sackville. The trio light up the stage with their hilarious antics and sharp humour, and despite an obvious lack in morals among their merry group they exuded warmth and mirth and were a treat to watch.
John Hodgkinson, who plays the lumbering King Charles II, inspired some of the biggest belly laughs from the audience. His hulking presence and regal obscenities combined to created a ridiculous yet powerful figure on stage.
As the play spiralled into it’s bleak conclusion, the complexities of John Wilmot’s psyche and and the turmoil that may have triggered his hedonistic lifestyle are placed into focus with intelligence and poise. All the characters faults are displayed honestly and unflinchingly, and it is a testament to the play that these people remain endearingly human and forgiveable.
Impeccably acted and beautifully scripted, the play portrays its subjects with a delicate balance between coarseness and vulnerability. It is an explosion of wit, decadence, vice, vulgarity and heartbreaking truth.
Follow Gillian Furmage: @gillyfurmaage