Restoration romps and monkey business
Michael Billington salutes Dominic Cooper’s Earl of Rochester, an unlikeable rake but one with depth, admires John Malkovich’s latest production and learns a lot about the American Civil War
I have a few quibbles. the play doesn’t give us enough of Rochester’s poetry and it glibly assumes he was the author of a pornographic playlet, Sodom, which was set before the king; according to the diarist, Anthony Wood, the real author was ‘one Fishbourne, a wretched Scribbler’.
But the play bursts with energy, terry Johnson’s production captures the back-biting politics of Restoration theatre and Mr Cooper, instead of setting out to charm us, conveys the brooding melancholy of the dedicated pleasure-seeker. there is good support from Jasper Britton as a tetchily tolerant Charles II, from Ophelia Lovibond as the fiercely independent Mrs Barry and from Alice Bailey Johnson as Rochester’s rusticated wife.
In the end, I suspect the play is about the yawning gulf between the ideal and the real. We may be seduced by the dashing beaux of Restoration comedy, but Mr Jeffreys shows the wanton selfdestructiveness of the man who inspired many of them.
Mr Jeffreys’s play was first seen in 1994 and, when it had its American premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Rochester was played by John Malkovich. now, the versatile Mr Malkovich turns up at the Rose, Kingston, as director of Good Canary, a play by the American screenwriter Zach Helm that was first seen in Paris in 2007.
If I say that the play is partly about addiction and that its heroine, Annie, is high on amphetamines, I suspect many will be put off, but it is sharp, witty and observant and charts very well the deep love of Annie’s husband, Jack, for his reckless and highly intelligent wife.
there is a plot twist, involving Jack’s debut as a novelist, which I didn’t really believe. nor could I accept that, in this day and age, a leading new York critic would be so foolish as to say that modern women novelists can’t write male characters. But Mr Malkovich’s production is first rate and beautifully designed by Pierre-francois Limbosch, whose projections of new York streets have a Hockneylike vividness, and Freya Mavor is mightily impressive as Annie, not least when she turns cartwheels while cleaning her apartment with puritanical zeal.
Down with the girls: Dominic Cooper plays the Earl of Rochester in Stephen Jeffreys’s The Libertine