There’s a slightly uncomfortable feeling of deja vu around The Libertine. As with Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, which transferred from Shakespeare’s Globe to a West End run earlier this year, this play is set in the court of Charles II, who is himself a leading character once again. There are also similarities with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg that transferred from Hampstead to the Haymarket last year, set in the court of George III, which also features a larger-than-life title character who indulges in extreme behaviour to feel alive.
Of course, Stephen Jeffreys got there first – this play originally premiered in 1994 at the Royal Court – but in this revival, it inevitably feels as if we are revisiting familiar territory. Once again, a world of excess is depicted: of personality, of appetites, of sexuality. There’s a lot of talk (and demonstrations) of priapic urges. While Mr Foote’s Other Leg had a penis on display in a jar, here a chorus number performed with a set of dildos opens the second act. The king takes a rather uninterested prostitute from behind, while another tries to rouse the title character’s inanimate member to action with her mouth.
In fact, this could be an old-fashioned West End sex comedy – and no doubt one of the reasons it has turned up there is that sex sells. If there are ribald, rambunctious pleasures to be had from easy laughs, the play also pursues a darker line of enquiry about the ambivalence of destructive behaviour and the true cost of it. “You will not like me,” warns the likeable Dominic Cooper as John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, in the opening moments of the play, as he sets out his stall for the bad behaviour that is going to follow.
Cooper was one of the original History Boys in Alan Bennett’s play, who knowingly used his schoolboy sexuality to his advantage. He’s still indulging it more than a dozen years later, but the boyish charm is starting to fade. Cooper is the star draw of Terry Johnson’s production, handsomely designed by Tim Shortall and lit with a chiaroscuro glow by Ben Ormerod.
A generous 15-strong company around him also has strongly drawn performances from Mark Hadfield as playwright George Etherege, Jasper Britton as Charles II, Ophelia Lovibond as an actor, Lizzie Roper as the stage manager and Nina Toussaint-White as a favoured prostitute.