Funny, Raunchy and Brutal: THE LIBERTINE at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

There was something about this play that intrigued me from the moment that its London transfer was announced – and no, it was not the fact that my big celebrity crush Dominic Cooper was the star of the show. I was fascinated by the show’s branding and how open it was to being a play that embraced and exhibited sex in such an obvious way, which is something the West End never seems to do.

I feel like the West End has shied away from shows that are so open about sex that aren’t satirical musicals like The Book of Mormon and this kind of rebellion intrigued me. It stuck with me in fact until the moment I left the theatre and the story was over because not only did I feel like a rebel by watching the show, I almost felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there watching it.

Now I know like this might sound like a bad thing to say about a play that many people have spent an arm and a leg on to see, but hear me out: the play’s openness to exhibiting alcoholism and sexual exploitation in such an open and casual way made me feel like I was a fly on the wall watching someone’s private business. The play follows the Earl of Rochester and is based on true events: it tells the story of the Earl – a famous poet and playwright of the time – and his incessant desire to overindulge in everything from sex to booze. Paired with a team of close friends including King Charles II himself, we are shown a man who is out of control who demonstrates perfectly that trying to redeem yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will like you at the end of it. The play is sharp, witty and honest and while they make a joke out of the situation a lot throughout the play, there is definitely a very dark undertone the whole way through, constantly reminding the audience that this is not a man that you are supposed to like. After all, he does open the play by telling the audience “you will not like me”.

The Earl of Rochester (Cooper) and his wife Elizabeth Malet (Alice Bailey Johnson) in The Libertine

A well written play never appears to be well written without a slew of fantastic actors and this play most definitely has that. Dominic Cooper makes a fantastic return to the stage as the Earl of Rochester and while his high charm and good looks are enough to entice you for a moment, he knows just how to kick you in the stomach and make you hate him again. I also particularly like Alice Bailey Johnson as Elizabeth Malet who seemed to give the most relatable performance of the whole piece, even though the play explicitly tells you that you will relate to Ophelia Lovibond’s character Elizabeth Parry more in one of the aside moments of Act One. Her character constantly questions any sort of odd moments of character from her husband the Earl and it’s a frequent reminder that you, as an audience member, had forgotten that this man was fundamentally a bad man. Her ability to stay so down to Earth when surrounded by a cast of overly saturated characters was commendable and duly noted.

The design of the piece caught my eye as well. While the lighting design didn’t capture my imagination all too much, I was very impressed by Tim Shortall’s ability to make a set that seemed to basic to begin with come to life in so many different ways. At first, the elevated stage in the middle of the actual stage was used as a tavern before being used as a playhouse and then becoming a bedroom before many other things. It was remarkable how simple it was to reuse the space and make it start anew and with the help of the electronic painting frame at the back of the stage (where the image inside changed in each scene to set the backdrop), the space felt a lot bigger than it actually is.

Mark Hadfield and Dominic Cooper in The Libertine

The Libertine is not one for those that are easily offended and is technically restricted from those under the age of 16 due to the high levels of adult content, but it is most definitely one of those who likes to see a piece of theatre push the boundaries of what’s commercial. It’s a night at the theatre that makes you laugh out loud as well as making you question your inner most demons and for that very reason, I think it’s a definite must-see.

No comments