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The Libertine (2011)

Directed by Damien Ryan and Terry Karabelas

Written by Stephen Jeffreys

August 18, 2011 to September 11, 2011

Time Out Sydney’s People’s Choice for Best Play of the Year and Sydney Theatre Awards 2011- Best Independent Production, Actor (Anthony Gooley) and Actress (Danielle King) and was also nominated for Best Director.

The Libertine proved a tremendous artistic and box office success, enjoying 8 sold out performances. It was was the winner of various awards including...

Since 2011, Sport for Jove Theatre has sought opportunities to present our work in Sydney’s independent and ‘Mainstage’ theatres. The first of these was The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys staged in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company. The production was directed by Damien Ryan and Terry Karabelas and starred many of the Sydney stage’s most respected performers, including Sean O’Shea (Bell Shakespeare Co.) and Susan Prior (Animal Kingdom, Puberty Blues), along with its most talented up-and-comers.

Stephen Jeffrey’s writes a play in which the central character asks us not to accept him as a worthy central character - a sufficient hero for a story on the stage. “You will not like me”, “do not warm to me”, “what I require is not your affection, but your attention”- these are the sentiments with which he bookends the theatrical story of John Wilmot’s (Lord Rochester’s) life but it’s probably more than just a clever, almost Brechtian conceit about how we should engage with the action to follow. It is perhaps quite an accurate response to the man’s life. He had no relationship with the normal constraints of social or familial behaviour and an almost nihilistic vision of the universe in his poetry, satire and personal philosophy. Nor was it simply a pose or stance according to Graham Greene, his most complete biographer - he meant it and lived it, utterly loyal to his ideal of disloyalty and inconstancy. He saw long before Beckett or Camus the arbitrary emptiness of existence and the contrivance of human institutions from education to religion and social order, even family in many ways.

“The restraining of men from the use of women, except one in the way of marriage, are unreasonable impositions on the freedom on mankind”.

He strived quite consciously for the world not to ‘like’ him, causing offence and bewilderment throughout his life, his most famous response to his own chaos clearly capturing his lack of concern for how he was perceived -“If the world will take offence hereby; Why then the world will suffer for’t, not I”.

Jeffrey’s takes that stance and marries it to the stage through questioning an audience’s desire to empathise with and ‘care’ for its hero, its journeyman, no matter how he may challenge us. Again, he does this by opening up so closely the man’s ‘real’ life. He lets us ‘hear’ the Earl himself continuously through the play, so much dialogue coming from Rochester’ own pen, his letters and poems, revealing a very modern and almost noble fragility in the man that is hard not to laugh with and build a bridge to. Mixed with Rochester’s capacity to revile those closest to him was, as Henry Bennett puts it, “a conversation so engaging that none could enjoy without admiration and delight, and few without love”. He was hypnotic by all accounts and to even engage in conversation with him was to risk an attraction almost fatal. By the play’s end, we are left in the same minefield of opinion and judgment that Restoration London was left in when the viciously and famously atheistic Wilmot was ‘saved’ on his deathbed, converting back to God under the guidance of the revered minister Burton. His transformation was not tokenistic but absolute, signing documents and “publishing to all the world” as he says in the play’s final scene, his “book of follies” and evils, denouncing his former self with the same conviction he once defined his intractability by. Which man are we supposed to like more? What did London make of losing their anti-hero to the tedium of conformity and the safe house of God?

So whether or not Jeffrey’s conceit of begging us not to like this most likeable of rakehells is effective or not as a theatrical idea, it is an interesting and consciously truthful reflection of the 33-year-long train-wreck of Rochester’s life and his relationship with his ‘audience’ at the time. This was an age famous for its ‘diarists’, the original ‘twitterers’ and ‘facebookers’ like Samuel Pepys who would record the banality of their breakfasts and shopping trips to market. To them Rochester was a dazzling open cut mine of disasters and scandals, a Kurt Cobain or Lindsay Lohan but with Stephen Hawking’s mind, Ionesco’s sense of absurd futility, W.H. Auden’s feeling for the world’s all too terrible beauty and self-destructiveness, and perhaps Oscar Wilde’s almost childish joy in life’s pretense of seriousness. “For a jest or a diversion, he would often hazard his life, and that many would think paying too dear for his conversation”.

This was a train-wreck filled with explosives and countless dirty little treasures to pick through among the debris.

Despite the fascinating life behind this story though, the play’s quality is as a tragedy more than a history I think. It may well be about the ‘particulars’ of an historical period that is fascinating in its own right - Restoration England from 1675-80 – remarkable according to Simon Schama, as “the world’s first modern state going through it’s birth pains”; but it is also quite a simple story with powerful ‘universal’ ideas, not just the ‘particulars’ of a life lived, but the obligations and temptations and frailties of every life lived. As is the essence of tragedy, the cast on this production has focused on what is most human in this story. At its core, it inevitably tells the story of many people sitting in the Darlinghurst Theatre tonight - people who have, secretly or otherwise, been unfaithful to those they love; people who perhaps wish for a world that recognises that maybe infidelity and immorality are actually ‘normal’, unremarkable behaviour; people who lack the courage to take responsibility for their ‘talent’ and refuse to put it on the line for fear of risking failure; people who live only by observing and siphoning life from others’ risks, successes and failures; people in positions of leadership who are acutely aware of their vulnerability; and of course people in the whirlpool of addiction and dependency (As Sam Haft, playing Alcock, said in rehearsal - “it’s an interesting play because it has a bit of a sucker punch I think. You think it’s a huge period piece and a big poetic play full of ideas and then the climax is as simple as watching an alcoholic try to stop drinking - you suddenly think it’s really maybe quite a simple play about alcohol addiction and he’s been waiting to hit us with that all along”). Sam was just chatting as we worked through the final scene one afternoon, but in the theatre as this poetry filled play reaches its conclusion I have come to think he might be dead right.

Our approach to this beautifully written play - with designer, Cill Smith and Lights, Matt Cox – was drawn from the turbulence of some of the events that defined the period. Rochester was almost an inevitable product of his age – a little phallic mountain range thrown up by the grinding together of two vastly different tectonic plates – one the stifling oppression of the Puritan decade in England, the other the licentious release of sensuality that followed Charles’ restoration – it was as if blocks of ice and fire collided in this precocious young man’s society and family, and something had to erupt.

The Great Plague and Fire of 1665 and 1666 were, in the eyes of many, God’s terrible vengeance on a Golden Age that had lost its way. We imagined an almost still-burning, gilt world of mirrored and reflective surfaces, that offered some promise of the ‘god-like’ rival court of the Sun-King at Versailles in France that many hoped the English court under Charles would out-do, but which had lost its gleam - melted, burnt and corrupted by fire and pestilence. It is a play and a period of vanities and reflective surfaces – with Rochester certainly the Libertine of the title but perhaps not the only one. He is surely holding a mirror of protest up to the man he believes to be the true Libertine, the King himself – the “great royal nudger”, “our sovereign rodgerer supreme”, father of 17 bastard children and boasting a remorseless public fascination with his whores and mistresses. Rochester is his fool, his truth-teller – jesting and stabbing at his image and being reprimanded like a child whipped and sent to his room but never adequately punished.

The stage itself is of course the central reflective surface in the play, which is a piece of theatre about the theatre – and very consciously mirrors Hamlet in countless ways - a disaffected, almost nihilistic but brilliant young man, raging against his parental figures, obsessed with a search for truth and a sensation worth living for, in love with the theatre and its ironic capacity to say something 'real' beneath it's mask, falling in love with a girl ' playing Ophelia' who destroys his conception of himself - a young man who ultimately fails in every aspect of his life, belying an extraordinary potential. At its centre it even features a play-within-a-play, a Mousetrap designed to catch the conscience of a King, but with more dildos on show than Elsinore tended to stock. I think Jeffreys knows he is remodeling Hamlet in this play.

We were also drawn to the story of fatherhood and mentorship Jeffreys is telling – the disappointed heartbreak of the flawed father and the lost son is the essence of Charles and Johnny’s relationship, which comes at the cost of other young men, who look up to them both as heroes and gods, like “poor Billy Downs”.

And finally, we wanted to explore through very simple storytelling devices, such as the table-top stage, the versatility of the theatre itself or the “boards”, with a period tale told by a group of contemporary actors and actresses who partly owe their own profession and livelihood to the intrepid performers of this turbulent period of English history. The play offers an interesting prologue and epilogue that sets up the startling contemporary edge to the writing. Being an historical era and a story that is certainly not common knowledge among Australians, we thought it interesting to allow the sense of ‘period’ to play reasonably strongly in the costuming and set, and to let the quasi-contemporary resonances in the language take care of themselves, but also to frame the story simply with the presence of its storytellers.

The nightmarish and fun challenges Jeffreys sets are the entrance of a monkey into Scene 6 (we considered a perspex box with the monkey always present but couldn’t afford the wrangler!); then the 60,000 Pound ornate sundial that must be trampled to dust on stage every night for a month!

I would like to extend a particular thank you to the wonderful and generous team – cast, crew and administration at SFJ – for their huge workload on such a big play on an independent budget. They have given so much of themselves. We know who you are and where you live and may wonderful things come to you in year remaining!

– thanks all for your commitment and generosity.

Director's Note

(No director's note available for this production)

Production Trailer

Production Reviews

Production Gallery

Photography by Seiya Taguchi

  • Alice Livingstone | Molly Luscombe / Mrs Will Ufton / Mrs Wade

  • Anthony Gooley | John Wilmot. 2nd Earl of Rochester

  • Danielle King | Elizabeth Barry

  • Felix Jozeps | Billy Downs / Mr Huysmans

  • James Lugton | Charles Sackville / Mr Harris

  • Mary Rapp | Cellist

  • Matt Edgerton | George Etheridge

  • Naomi Livingston | Jane

  • Sam Haft | Alcock / Constable of Epsom

  • Sean O'Shea | Charles II

  • Susan Prior | Elizabeth Malet / Dolly

  • Lucilla Smith | Set and Costume Design

  • Barry French | Set Construction

  • Christopher Stalley | Set Construction Assistant

  • Damien Ryan | Director

  • David Stalley | Videography

  • Drew Livingston | Music Composition "The Dildo Song"

  • Heather Lyndsay | Recorded Cello

  • Hugh Barrett | Recorded Piano

  • John Karabelas | Sound Designer

  • Kim Taylor | Prop Master

  • Lynne Stalley | Prop Master

  • Mary Rapp | Cello Composition & live performance

  • Matt Cox | Lighting Designer

  • Naomi Livingston |Choreography

  • Oliver Burton | Marketing, Publicity & Administration

  • Scott Witt | Fight Choreography

  • Sean Van Doornum | Music Composition score and live cello

  • Terry Karabelas | Director

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