The Libertine (2007)

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by Stephen Jeffreys

Directed by Bob Callender

Performances: Tuesday 15th – Saturday 19th May 2007, Prompt Corner


John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester wrote poetry in the 1660s so frank that it remained banned until 1949. Written in the 1990s, The Libertine dramatises real events in his life.

One of the fun parts of doing a play about real people is you can research their lives and feel closer to the characters you are portraying. In this case we had Rochester’s poetry, some biographies, and the mighty portraits of Rochester and Charles II that hang in the National Portrait Gallery. Knowing that the story you are telling is drawn from life makes you want to do it well, perhaps in some peculiar way to “do justice” to the people who really lived these adventures.

Perhaps the biggest attraction of this script, was how much of it is about theatre and dramatists. The plot follows Rochester’s romance with the actress Elizabeth Barry, and his friendly rivalry with George Etherege, in the course of which many wise and true words are spoken about the theatre, and how it relates (or not) to real life.

Many of Rochester’s original poems crop up in the script, and surprisingly some of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the diaries of the people who knew Rochester at the court of Charles II. But although the language may be historic, the style of the play is recognisably modern. We’ve decided to go for modern dress in this production and focus on the emotional content, because whether you think of this as a historical or a modern piece, the ideas and emotions it portrays are ones we can all recognise – artistic rivalry, love, rebellion, excess, hypocrisy, monarchy, religion. At times the script can be pretty dense with all the themes at play – we have done our best to find and present the emotional truth in each scene, and hope you find a few things here that will ring true for you.



Thanks to - The cast and crew of Dr Faustus (2007), the cast and crew of Volpone (2007), Maria Bates, Val Williams, Jess Osorio, Sydenham Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Ego, The Railway Tavern, Lancaster's, St Luke's Church.

"A huge piece, well brought off." Jason.

"You really pulled it off." Sarah Archer.


Photos: Mark Davies

Reminiscences and Anecdotes

Members are encouraged to write about their experiences of working on or seeing this production. Please leave your name. Anonymous entries may be deleted.


JOHN Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, wrote many bawdy satires during his short lifetime in the late 1600s, and was the model for the foppish title character in George Etherege's Restoration comedy The Man of Mode, writes Mark Campbell.

The Libertine, a 1994 play by Stephen Jefferys, performed recently at the South London Theatre in West Norwood, attempted to reconstruct the life of this extravagant womaniser, raconteur and patron of the arts.

The result was a sometimes fascinating look at a circle of young, fashion-obsessed dandies who lived for pleasure while at the same time cocking a snook at their benefactor, King Charles II.

Judging by the play, Rochester was a deeply unpleasant man who was redeemed through his affair with then-famous actress Elizabeth Barry.

But even this newly discovered altruism couldn't save him from the ravages of alcoholism and syphilis.

Directed by Bob Callendar and staged in the theatre's small studio space, Prompt Corner, the large cast had clearly worked hard at maximising the impact of Jeffrey's script, some of it based directly on Rochester's writings.

But the decision to have the actors perform in rather tatty 'ordinary' dress, in truth a tatty collection of 1970s charity shop cast-offs, and virtually no props (apart from giant papier mâché phalluses) robbed the story of much of its drama and colour.

It was also much too long, with the second act introducing new, unnecessary plot developments just when the end seemed in sight.

Rob Clother played Rochester as a man fully aware of his genius, with Adam Bambrough's Sackville a gruff Northerner with an amusing line in plain speaking.

Matthew Davis made a flamboyantly garrulous Etheredge.

It was an intriguing idea to cast a black actor as the King, but although Chukwudi Onwere looked and acted the part, his Kenneth Williams-style upper class accent seemed wildly overplayed.

The most engaging performances came from the two female leads.

Liz Chambers as Elizabeth Barry was excellent, while the stolid resilience of Juliet Holden as Rochester's embittered wife Elizabeth Malet formed the calm centre around which everything else revolved.

Bexley Times


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