Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: The Libertine, Bristol Old Vic

I am always a sucker for a few ruffles and double-entendres, so theoretically The Libertine, the latest thing at Bristol Old Vic's main house, should be right up my street.

Photo: Eoin Carey
This production, by Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre has lots to recommend it, from excellent sets and costumes to great acting and a witty script. It follows the fate of the real-life John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was a famous rake and poet at the court of Charles II. Rochester, who points out at the beginning of the play that he is quite unlikeable, then proceeds to drink, shag, and provoke other people until he finally ensures his own destruction.

I couldn't find anything to fault in any of the performances, and it was great to see a play with a whole bunch of functional female characters, who have personalities and motivations in their own right. There was certainly plenty of ruffles, and double-entendres, and I did genuinely laugh.

Nonetheless, I just couldn't get caught up in the earl's #seventeenthcenturyproblems enough to feel involved. The Earl is rich, he is privileged, he commands the love of several women, to whom he is routinely unfaithful. He might be a genius, but can't be arsed to write a play to prove it. It's true that the character says you will not like him, but at the end, I couldn't help wondering, really, is he an iconoclast, or just a bit of a self-indulgent bore? I mean this as no disrespect to the actor that played the part, since this is a question for the playwright.

The play the Libertine was written by Stephen Jeffreys 20 years ago, and the odd thing for me is not how much it whiffs of the Restoration, which it is supposed to evoke, but of the cultural mores of the baby-boomer generation, with their veneration of rock stars, and the cult of the drunken genius rebelling against conformity. Twenty years later, amidst the massive and unshifting corruption of politics, the unravelling of the ghastly sex offences of the rich and famous in a series of almost-televised trials, and the omnipresent lurk of pornography on the internet, the poor Earl's attempts at debauchery look positively mild.

To put it bluntly, if you find Russell Brand dangerous and edgy, you'll like this. If you don't, you won't. Personally, I find myself caring less and less for anti-heroes in any story I'm exposed to. I'm so cynical about cynicism, these days. Perhaps when one lives in harder times there seems less romance in self-destruction, and more in the simple act of surviving.

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