Published in the Guardian Citizens Theatre, Glasgow Four stars
WHEN Jacob Huysmans painted John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, he pictured Wilmot in the company of a monkey. The 17th-century courtier and satirist looked suitably grand standing in his periwig, while the animal clutched a book and proffered a scrap of paper like a simian poet laureate. It was a challenge to everything a noble portrait was supposed to be, and even now it seems slyly subversive.
This is the Wilmot portrayed by Stephen Jeffreys in The Libertine, now given an intelligent, fluid and gutsy staging by Dominic Hill 20 years after its Out of Joint premiere. But instead of the light-hearted transgressor, bending the rules for our entertainment, this man has turned the decadence of the court of Charles II into something self-destructive, narcissistic and cruel. He tells us as much in a direct audience address – "You will not like me" – and spends the rest of a long play resisting our urge to paint him as a maverick hero.
It's a task Martin Hutson takes on with single-minded authority, sharing with the large ensemble a clear command of Jeffreys's fruity faux-Restoration language and, after sundry acts of sex and violence, descending into a miserable vision of alcoholic decrepitude. Like Doctor Faustus – staged last year by Hill – he is drawn to hedonistic excess only to find the pleasure is as ephemeral as a stage illusion.
Pulled between the mirror images of Lucianne McEvoy as his wife and Gillian Saker as his mistress – two elegant red-headed doppelgangers – he wrestles with the binary attractions of town and country, truth and illusion, head and heart, before his own self-serving cynicism eats him up.
It is staged in the stripped-back, rehearsal-room style that Hill has made his own, with Tom Piper's illustrative backcloths dropping in and out; actors lurk upstage when it's not their scene. In this case, a technique designed to focus our attention on the make-believe work of the actor has the twin effect of drawing out the playwright's theme about the allure of theatrical artifice. Rochester finds greater truth among the playhouse creatures than he does in real life – at least until his associate George Etherege (Tony Cownie on top form) has an unexpected hit with The Man of Mode, a play that caricatured and neutered him.
In our own age of austerity, Rochester's battle with decadence is not the most pressing of dilemmas, but the swagger and pace of this richly acted production give it life and urgency.