COMIC DARING, DILDO-JABBING, PHILOSOPHICAL DESPAIR…
It is not surprising that theatre falls in love with the Restoration : the stage itself springing back to life after Puritan austerities, real actresses, free with their ways, extravagant dress, flying plackets and petticoats, flaunting periwigs, whorehouses, orange-girls rising from the mud and aristocrats declining into it. And – to consolidate the modern parallels – after a few years of Charles II , a cynical disillusion with politics , authority, religion and the Divine Right of Kings. We have had the merry Nell Gwynn at the Globe and the Apollo; now roaring up from the Theatre Royal Bath comes a revival of Stephen Jeffreys’ darker, dirtier account of a real figure: the great rake and jeering poet John Wilmot, earl of Rochester.
Dominic Cooper, symbolically wigless in his own long hair amid many luxuriant wigs, strides forward over rough benches before a huge projection of a puffed, silken cleavage (one of many strikingly fleshy backdrops of the evening) to sneer “You will not like me..I demand not your affection but your attention”. We are plunged into bawdy (yes, very) literary chat between him, Mark Hadfield’s George Etherege, an innocent wannabe Billy Downs, and the preposterous figure of another earl, Sackville : Richard Teverson in clay-whitened face and cascading ginger wig , comically providing an ordinary sot as a foil to Rochester’s restless, intelligent, philosophically determined libertinism.
It is for a few minutes as Georgette Heyer fell into unwilling collaboration with Joe Orton and Kenneth Tynan: Before long we have King Charles (Jasper Britton) enthusiastically rogering Big Dolly on a balcony while conversing with Rochester as he lies below being “gobbled” by his faithful favoured tart Jane, while random layabouts lurch and curse around them.
But the point of this subtle, tough play, for all its larky comedy, is that Rochester is not really one of them. He is an emerging modern: clever and sensitive and out of place and disillusioned and bored: “Our boredom is so intense we make dangerous things happen”. Dangerous to his cynicism though is a sudden fascination with the unusually tough-minded actress Lizzie Barry (Ophelia Lovibond) . She like him has an instinct for more truthful playing, rejecting the broad stylized dramatics of the day. He needs theatre because unlike his life it makes narrative and emotional sense: “I cannot feel in life, I must have others to do it for me” he cries, and later observes that theatre in shaping stories lies – “life is not a succession of urgent “Now!”s – it is a listless trickle of “Why should I?s”. Commissioned to write a play about the King, he enrols Lizzie, Jane, and others to rehearse a heavily pornographic, dildo-heavy, explicitly sexually scornful piece (a sort of proto- Ubu Roi) . From here by way of a brawl, the philosophical vandalizing of a sundial for not working at night, flight and internal exile, he declines all the way to a final renunciation of it all. And of his own vitality.
Cooper puts in a commanding, convincingly troubled performance but what shines out from Terry Johnson’s production (ravishingly composed, designed and lit by Tim Shortall and Ben Ormerod) is the strength of the women. Lovibond is a defiant, feminist Lizzie Barry; Alice Bailey Johnson moving, decent and determined as Lady Rohester; Nina Toussaint-White as Jane the prostitute again toughly moving; and as Big Dolly and a magnificently robust stage manager Lizzie Roper gives us yet another aspect of womanhood. What began as a romping period imagining develops real seriousness and sadness.
box office 020 7930 8800 to 3 Dec