Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, Thursday 13th October, 2016
In a prologue, John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, announces “You will not like me.” It’s a warning and a challenge, but I’m sitting there looking at Dominic Cooper and thinking, Mate, I’m in love with you already.
Cooper oozes charm as the world-weary gadabout, womaniser and wit. An easily compelling stage presence, he gives us an anti-hero we can’t help but admire. He knocks around with a great bunch of lads: George Etherege (Mark Hadfield), Charles Sackville (a powdered-faced Richard Teverson) and young hanger-on Billy (Will Merrick), as they satirise their way through life, drinking and whoring and committing acts of vandalism. They are men in wigs behaving badly.
When Wilmot encounters actress Elizabeth Barry, he experiences love for the first time. He coaches her to success on the London stage but, as a lover, is an abject failure. Ophelia Lovibond is the perfect foil for Wilmot’s excesses. Prim, perky and ambitious, she stands out among these larger-than-life, rambunctious characters. Also excellent is Jasper Britton as a debauched yet regal Charles II, and there is strong support from Lizzie Roper as down-to-earth stage manager Molly Luscombe, and Nina Toussaint-White as prostitute Jane. I warm to Alice Bailey Johnson’s long-suffering Elizabeth – we see she is as she is, due to Wilmot’s treatment of her. Cornelius Booth is good fun as haughty, mannered actor Harry Harris, and Will Barton is a hoot as lugubrious manservant Alcock.
Tim Shortall’s set of shabby brickwork, tarnished gilt and wooden boards evokes the theatre and decay. Well-worn and tawdry in its faded glamour, it’s a great fit for the sumptuous auditorium of the Theatre Royal – it’s practically an immersive experience and I purchase both an orange and a kiss from an obliging wench. Director Terry Johnson keeps the cast skipping through Stephen Jeffreys’s erudite script – it’s an easily accessible glimpse of the period.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Wilmot’s lifestyle catches up with him and he falls into physical decline. He renounces the booze and his atheism, exchanging one addiction for another – pious devotion; having lived life like a firework display, he kind of fizzles out like a damp squib.
I kind of wish he’d gone to his grave, railing defiantly against it, like Don Giovanni dragged off to hell. Perhaps the death bed makes believers of us all…
This is a hugely enjoyable production, stylish and funny and sometimes obscene. Dominic Cooper is in superb form (in every sense), a star turn among a constellation of supporting players.