DANCE / Ashton: lest we forget

Ashton Celebration - Royal Ballet
`Mad, bad, and dangerous to know": Lord Byron lived down and up to his own accolade; Evelyn Waugh then applied it to the Twenties dandy Brian Howard. But it's a tag that might have been expressly devised to describe a man who pre-dates these figur es - John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (1647-80), Restoration poet of excellent lyric and licentious verses, bisexual rake, friend of Charles II, and hard-drinking free thinker who drove pell mell down the fast lane before it had even been invented a nd died at 33, a convert to the Christianity he had previously scorned.

He's said to have been the model for Dorimant, the wittily womanising hero of George Etherege's Man of Mode (1676). Of that character, his former mistress remarks: "I know he is a devil but he has something of the angel yet undefaced in him." And that's the kind of contradiction you're confronted with by Rochester, in whose work, as Haslitt noted, there's a curious kind of inverse sublimity. Rochester's connection with Dorimant has been questioned, but there's no doubt that he's now firmly centre stage in Stephen Jeffreys' The Libertine, which Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint have brought to the Royal Court in tandem with a revival of Etherege's comedy.

Rich and ranging, this new play is a vibrant, sometimes untidy mix of adroit pastiche, historical liberty, direct quotation, pointed (and blunt) anachronism and enough themes to keep three or four average plays bubbling along.

is used to throw light on both Rochester's philosophy and his legend.

large, crowds the Christianity issue into the final minutes, where the implication seems to be that, just as drunks proverbially see pink elephants, so men who go cold turkey hallucinate God.

into cynical arabesques. You can see from Tim Potter's hilarious but non-caricaturing performance as Charles II just why his reign was a disappointment to men like Rochester -and also that the expectations of him were unreasonable.

futile, uncertain place populated by monkeys disguised in finery.

comedy that may remind you at such moments of Edward Bond's Restoration.

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