The Libertine begins with a promise. Dominic Cooper, as Restoration rake the Earl of Rochester, delivers a swaggering prologue, directly informing the audience that although they may like some of what he does, they will not like him.
This speech is an implicit bargain; that he will behave appallingly, and the audience will be thrilled by it. And yet for all the suggestive marketing and prohibitions on the admittance of under-16s, the promise remains unfulfilled.
There is swearing, to be sure, but there is nothing on stage to shock or titillate the modern viewer. There are no serious crimes, no sexual perversity of substance, no great moral outrage, there isn’t even the cheap thrill of exposed breasts or buttocks. Mostly, there is a lingering sense of squandered potential.
It does not bode well if you’re watching a play and the thing that most strikes you is the quality of the sound design. If the story, characters and acting are good enough, then details like lighting or acoustics should slip by almost unnoticed. Here, however, they are all too prominent.
Credit where it’s due, John Leonard’s rich aural landscape allows the audience to hear ambient noises, such as birds or galloping horses, and activities taking place offstage, creating a world of greater depth and detail, but a more engaging play could transport audiences without resort to such technical wizardry.
Cooper makes rather a habit of playing boorish wastrel playboys, whose creativity – for a time at least – makes their actions tolerable; think of the painter Alfred Munnings in Summer in February or the rock-drummer Ben in Tamara Drewe. Sometimes the genius that underlies the churlishness shines through, as with his portrayal of the young Howard Stark in Captain America, but here it remains well buried.
At one point Rochester has seduced an actress (Ophelia Lovibond), who claims to have seen the true self that hides behind a façade of cynicism, however in theatre as in fiction the trick must be to show, not tell. From the perspective of the audience he remains a wealthy man, bored with the world, and there are few things more boring than that.
A disjointed narrative may reflect the course of historical events, but in this instance it does not make compelling theatre. Thankfully, the play is not entirely without charms, as there is an opening scene excoriating John Dryden, a monkey puppet, and, after the intermission, a choral tribute to dildos.
There are good performances from Mark Hadfield as the playwright George Etherege, Nina Toussaint-White as the prostitute Jane, Cornelius Booth as the actor Mr Harris, and Jasper Britton, as a lively Charles II.
The play probably achieves its greatest profundity as it nears its conclusion, in an exchange between the republican Rochester and the king. After listing the many disappointments of Charles II’s reign, Rochester says he cannot forgive his friend and antagonist for failing to be a god.
This comes closest to revealing Rochester’s inner-life of disillusionment, and explaining his self-destructiveness. It is a sentiment that we can all understand in the final year of Obama’s presidency, watching America seemingly contemplate the election of Trump, and yet it is all too fleeting. However, by this stage in the production the audience should be accustomed to disappointment.