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The Rake's Progress

Poet, boozer, bisexual and now a play. Paul Taylor on the Earl of misch ief
`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.

Stafford-Clark's production is enjoyably equal to the stylistic variety which ranges from a kind of highbrow Carry On (with knobs and Hobbs on) to more reflective and reflexive scenes where the difference between the theatre and the real world is used tothrow light on both Rochester's philosophy and his legend.

A duller dramatist than Jeffreys would have opened with a burnt-out case on his death-bed and have presented the poet's life in flashback, viewing the career and the 11th-hour conversion in the light of one another. But The Libertine, by and 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.

As an alternative approach, the play tries to suggest a sociological basis for Rochester's seemingly limitless cynicism and then to speculate about why its limits were eventually found. In a way that made me want to draw parallels with other post-war generations (the Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age, the Angry Young Men of the Fifties). The Libertine shows you a world where there are no brave causes left for the Court wits to vent their brilliance upon, so that it gets diverted 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.

As for what disturbed the poet's cynicism, the play posits his affair with the great Restoration actress Elizabeth Barry (Katrina Levon), whom it first presents as a kind of Eliza Doolittle to his Professor Higgins. His love for her and her growing determination to be independent produces the worst line in the play, when he cries: "I cannot forgive you for teaching me to love life." Hollywood, at its most incorrigible, could not improve on that. But the theatre also provides a means for expressing Rochester's view of life. Its artificial world, where all actions have known consequences and where dropped handkerchiefs come back to strangle you, is paradise for that very reason to a man for whom the real world is a futile, uncertain place populated by monkeys disguised in finery.

The theatre peddles lies, as is brought home graphically when David Westhead's Rochester - who is magnificent in decline but too ingratiating and incipiently cheeky-chappie to convince as an aristocrat beforehand - arm-locks in the wings the embarrassed actor playing his fictional self, Dorimant. The contrast is piercing, the stage libertine is rude with health, whereas Rochester is a sodden wreck, the maggots of disease almost audibly eating him away. A revisionist take on Restoration comedy that may remind you at such moments of Edward Bond's Restoration.

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