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The Libertine

Sport for Jove Theatre in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company Present THE LIBERTINE by Stephen Jeffreys at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

THE LIBERTINE by Stephen Jeffreys at the Darlinghurst Theatre is the BEST night I have had in the theatre, with a play, this year. There could be no greater contrast to the experience at atyp Under the Wharf production, SWEET BIRD ANDSOFORTH which I saw last week, and underlines my observations expressed in my post on A QUIET NIGHT IN RANGOON at the New Theatre at present.

In the …RANGOON post I talk about my hard earned view of the necessary ingredients for the collaborative effort that the theatre is. I do, regard the writer as “GOD” – ‘In the beginning there was the word’ – and from all that inspiration (and hard work), all else depends.

THE LIBERTINE by Stephen Jeffreys (1994) is what I regard as one of the great contemporary classics of the last decade, if not longer (THE CLINK by Stephen Jeffreys, 1990, is another, I reckon). With the genius of Mr Jeffreys chosen by SPORT BY JOVE THEATRE, the company have an outstanding opportunity to succeed. However it is “a poisoned chalice” for the unwary or/and under prepared, for this text is formidable in all of its demands. No ordinary or simply indulged emotional enthusiasm for the performing arts will get you through this project. It is of the highest quality in the writing and demands all other elements to bring it to life, of a similar quality. The choice of this play sets an incredibly high bench mark of necessary effort and attack in rehearsal.

“THE LIBERTINE tells the story of the Earl of Rochester, friend and confidant of Charles II and the most notorious rake of his age. He was an anti-monarchist, an atheist who converted to Christianity and a lyric poet who revelled in pornography. The play centres on the moment his cynicism is confounded when he falls in love in earnest.

Thoroughly modern in its attitude to Rochester’s sexual indulgence, the play is also a thrillingly convincing portrait of the period and an accomplished comedy of manners.” [1].

It is the engrossing story of a prodigal who with the ease and rewards of his gift becomes a libertine and journeys to the calamitous figure of a profligate. A profligate of his witty talent, of his humanity, of his wealth and health.

In a now famous opening monologue in the prologue to this play Rochester begins a direct address to the audience: “Allow me to be frank at the commencement: you will not like me. No, I say you will not. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on…”

Three hours later, through a thrilling and wonderfully witty night of watching and especially listening, Rochester finishes with another address to us “…I made an inventory of my life and found much wanting: injuries to divers people: want of attention to my affairs: a lifetime of spitting in the face of God, and I knew I was to be cast down. I had long ago discarded the layer of formal politeness with which to negotiate the world, but now I had to wade through the slough of my licentiousness until I found level ground underfoot, a ground of true sensibility and love of Christ. Now I gaze upon a pinhead and see angels dancing. Well. Do you like me now? Do you like me now?”.

Of late, recent discussion about the relevance of some of the repertoire presented to the Sydney audience has broiled about. For instance, THE SEAGULL, THE WHITE GUARD. Now, any well informed theatre goer would be able to attach many good reasons to have these plays on our stages. Least of which would be their observation of the common human bond of watching other frail individuals map their journey through what life throws at them. A mirror to our lives, indeed. That evolution is slow and that the human animal is not much different, over time, despite the constant lessons of history, is always a salutary comfort or confrontation, depending where you are in your life arc, is bracingly transfigured for us. It is the reason, I suppose, why the Greeks formalised the theatre for us – to instruct and enlighten the citizens. That both those plays are also examples of wonderful writing is, I believe a great part of the necessity to see them. They both give us plimsoll lines of necessary expertise of what is required to stay afloat – then and now.

Now, with Stephen Jeffreys’ THE LIBERTINE some of the public might ask what the F… does the Earl of Rochester and the Court of Charles II have to do with the relevancy of my spending over three hours with it in Sydney in 2011? – Some have said it, some are, and some will be. Well, besides the delicious and provoking moral travails and debates, the dense and complex wit of the language, there is a passion of mission and love of the theatre that exudes from all this company that transcends any cynics demurring about WHY? WHY? Why this play? Attend and you will see why the theatre, when well done, is not dead. It is excitingly, thankfully alive in this production. In my experience of the recent THE SEAGULL and THE WHITE GUARD, neither production were well done enough. Some elements but not all. At least, not enough well done to help the audience to appreciate the reasons for their appearance on the contemporary Sydney. THE LIBERTINE is more than well done and its relevance to my life on Tuesday, 22nd August, 2011, is transparently obvious. I was, simply, glad to be alive while watching and consequently. “What a piece of work is man” if this is what he can do.

I wish to make a point about the writer and the use of language which elevates THE LIBERTINE and gives fabulous reason to see this production. Suzan-Lori Parks a great contemporary American playwright says: ” I spend a lot of time reading the dictionary. The word “grammar” is etymologically related to the word “charm”. Most words have fabulous etymologies. Thrilling histories. Words are very old things. Because words are so old they hold; they have a big connection with what was. Words are spells in our mouths.”

WORDS ARE SPELLS IN OUR MOUTHS”- oh my gosh the Mess Hall company mangling the English translation by Ben Winspear of Laura Naumann’s German play SWEET BIRD AND SOFORTH take note; to be fair, many other productions seen in Sydney this year as well, should take note.

That a lot of actors simply use the combination of the words of the writer as a general expression of their own emotional, little, narrow lives is apparent in catastrophic proportions across a lot of the Sydney stages. Literary strivings are often reduced to the actor’s instinctive limitations. It undermines and often under represents the writer’s craft as the source, as the reason to labour on the chosen project from rehearsal to audience participation in witnessing it. What is often lacking from the actor on our stages is the commitment of the actor to use their craft at full creative capacity: the basic skills of the actor – the voice, as the fundamental communicator of sounds that make up words, phrases, sentences, speeches – a love of using those words that formulate a mode of communication to the tribe. That words area physical act driven by detailed imagination from close reading.

That a lot of these actors are graduates from various training institutions around the country and, I know, have been educated to the tools and the best usage of their animal mechanics to create sounds and their combinations well, to take advantage of the gift that the writer has given them, if you have chosen well, suggests a general malaise and/or attitude that the Australian actor has, to maintaining and surpassing their training to continue to find a way to achieve excellence in their job. Thank god, they are not the electrician I had in to do some work on my apartment. That some actors do not get jobs, is often excused by everything they can think of, other than the actor’s neglect and slothful approach to what it takes to be a prepared instrument for opportunity, to be the cause: from prejudice and cronyisms – “The Pink Mafia” or “The Boy’s Club” etc.

Suzan-Lori Parks goes on: “My interest in the history of words – where they come from. Where they’re going – has a direct impact on my playwriting because, for me, language is a physical act. It’s something which involves the entire body – not just you head” (I would add, not just your feelings), “Words are spells which an actor consumes and digests – and through digesting creates a performance on stage…”

On the Darlinghurst Theatre stage, on the night I attended, the actors, all, had a grasp of those illuminations and either through dint of their own gift and practices of prepared talent or the focused guidance of an astute, knowledgeable, meticulous and rigorous Director (Damien Ryan and Terry Karabelas) have achieved an unexpected wonder of quality rarely seen on the Sydney stages: a text well served. Well spoken. Well communicated. Well digested. Well done. Mr Jeffreys should be thrilled. You will be. I was. Words as charms , as spells.

Let us talk of one of the many hallmarks of this production. INTELLIGENCE.

Anthony Gooley who plays Rochester, revels in the opportunity he has been given. Earned. That he wrestles with it and sculpts a living monument of this character and demonstrates what the craft of acting can be is totally admirable. I have watched this young actor grow over many years. Diligent and intelligent. Serious and applied. When I heard that he had been cast as Rochester, I was excited but also apprehensive. Mr Gooley is a good actor but I did not believe he was ready for this role. Despite some flaws (which I believe are physiological and are simply his nature-given instrument) about the sounds he can make, that are not the natural pleasing mellifluousness of, say, a Hugo Weaving, after the prologue speech, which I know inordinately well, and so very sensitive too, I was compelled to enter the world that Mr Gooley was creating, and watched a good actor grow before my eyes into a flirtation with greatness. The arc of this performance is so intelligently drawn and the actor is so powerfully immersed in what he has to do that the sheer human effort, the language demand that Ms Parks speaks too above, is brilliantly evident and embodied. The cost to Mr Gooley looks immense. The physical debauched exhaustion in the ultimate scene Thirteen of the play, is so splendidly lived that awe for Mr Gooley is all I could have for him. All qualms dissolved. We should be grateful for his commitment to his task. One only hopes that Mr Gooley can find the opportunity, in Sydney, to continue this magnificent jump, this breakthrough into the top league. There is nothing, as I attested to Robyn Nevin’s work in NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, like regular practice at your craft that will facilitate greatness more. If you consider the work that Mr Gooley has given us over the past few years e.g. ORESTES 2.0 or his Granillo in ROPE, one saw a promising actor, but here, the directors of THE LIBERTINE have given him, with good faith that he could, a challenging opportunity, and he has seized it to become an actor of the first rank Exciting to see. Promise, fulfilled.

But this production does not just have the central role radiating greatness but an entire cast of higher than usual commitment and achievement.

Susan Prior, playing Rochester’s wife, Elizabeth Malet, is deeply affecting as the woman of loyalty, infinite patience and love forced to be cruel to be kind. With a vocal warmth and love of her character’s language that allows her to reveal her character, her dilemma and story without excessive emotional overlay, Ms Prior, is simply, deeply, imaginatively engaged and speaks the English language, given to her, with all of it’s opportunities mined and expertly shaped to give, us, the audience the right clues to be able to imagine with her,and thus endow the situation and character with our own cathartic reflection. We have an amazing personal experience in watching with her. What is particularly engrossing about Ms Prior’s work over the years, (not enough of it, of course, for us as connoisseurs of the art, to see the growth), is her tremendous capacity to always to be in the absolute moment of investigative evolution. All of her acting appears to be happening spontaneously in front of you, an improvisation of investigation. I have never known Ms Prior ever to simply repeat a rehearsed success or choice, but rather we see her investigate an evolving truth in the moment of performing, hence stacked with high stakes of danger, because it could be disastrously wrong that night, or gloriously great. Ms Prior’s work always appears delicately fragile and fresh and simply beautiful because it is always blossoming in front of us, just for us on the night we are there. There is no routine repetition, and if you watch closely, if you went again, you would see minute developments and losses that makes theatre going immeasurably worthwhile. Ms Prior’s Elizabeth Malet is another of her brilliant, but often underestimated portraits of life on the stage.

The other principal woman in Rochester’s gambit in this play is Elizabeth (Lizzie, in the program) Barry. This seventeenth century actress is of immense importance to the history of the English speaking stage. Mr Jeffrey’s honours that brilliantly. He also creates a major foil, for the Rochester character, in his fiction, in that she represents a proto-feminist point of view in the play to the dual world of the witnessed action, then and now.

Danielle King is an actress that I cannot remember having seen before (There are no biographies of any of the artists in the program – rather, there is a long and slightly attenuated ‘essay’ by Damian Ryan that could have given way to courtesies to his fellow creatives – they have little else). A potent presence that is propelled to our attentions by a beautifully modulated and richly informed vocal instrument that intelligently and profoundly mines her speeches with all the exactness of word knowledge and preparation that brings Mr Jeffreys’ labour of love to the fore for rich appreciation, however, unconscious, we the audience maybe, to Ms King’s skill and brilliance. A performance of finely judged economy and passion. A modern woman stands relevantly before us in the dress of another time – powerful indeed.

Then, Sean O’Shea as Charles II with theatrical relish, seizes every luscious moment that Mr Jeffreys has strewn for this character (I felt there was more than an homage to the mannerisms of Barry Otto on stage). Mr O’Shea is, as usual, wicked and witty in his contribution. Sam Haft as the carer of Rochester, Alcock, is at his usual deft and modest self – another sadly, under-used actor of integrity and talent. Dry, witty, restrained, with a vocal depth that is redolently attractive – he speaks and one is instantly engaged and imaginatively embroiled. James Lugton, again, not seen often enough, but demonstrates why he should be as, amongst many roles, Charles Sackville – slyly, intelligently wicked in his subversive readings of character. Matt Edgerton playing the historic figure, the playwright, George Etheredge, who wrote the Restoration masterpiece THE MAN OF MODE, with Rochester impersonated brilliantly as the character Dorimant, gives a performance of great charm and ease, one that I never suspected was there, based on remembrances of his contribution to Kate Gaul’s THE SEAGULL a year or so ago. Alice Livingston’s stalwart and convincing work as Molly Luscombe and others also makes a mark that lifts her profile into focus and deserves attention. A young man, Felix Jozeps also creates a complex and significant contribution as Billy Downs. Naomi Livingston, completes the list of actors admirably in her many telling supportive contributions.

It is the influence of the director that I would like to go on about now. For Damien Ryan and Terry Karabelas, what each did for this production I cannot demarcate, have achieved here a fine miracle of what appears a deeply considered and prepared approach to the production of this difficult and great play. They have supervised all the elements with apparent care. That these actors chosen by them, have achieved such great work has to be a testament to the skill of both these men. Some of these actors have never been better and all of them are giving a passionate and knowing contribution to the text of Mr Jeffreys that results in an unparalleled ensemble on the Sydney stage this year. Not a weak link.

Bear in mind that this is a co-op production and does not have the resources, time or monies of our flagship companies and have, somehow, by dint of passion and inspired leadership outplayed, out shone any experience that they have given me so far this year.

The directors’ work with the Designer, both Set and Costumes by Lucilla Smith is also a proof of the fine influence of their aesthetics on and with their selected artists. Ms Smith has always demonstrated a wonderful design mind and skill, but under the guidance of Kate Reve and the CRY HAVOC production banner has tended to excess and indulgence. Here on the Darlinghurst stage an elegantly decrepitude of a decaying mirrored room leaning dangerously into the centre of the room on the point of collapsing in on itself, surrounds a cleverly composed set of properties of chairs and table-top boards to be imaginatively transformed and suited to ever more inventive tasks than the straight forward one. The revealed floor image – a mosaic of Christ in the second half, becomes a poignant contrivance of grace for a repentant Rochester. Masterful in its simplicity. The costumes, too, are a smooth mix of contemporary and ‘mock’ period and are detailed in their use and appearance.

Matt Cox provides a yellowish and densely atmospheric lighting plot for the scenes throughout the play and within the small confines of the Darlinghurst stage, no mean feat. It is often translucently beautiful. The found music selection and the original composition by Sean Van Doornum and Mary Rapp is perfectly pitched to create emotional support to the scenes. The invention, for instance, by the company about the pall-mall game with the mallets is perfectly judged, witty and dramatic. Mary Rapp also plays live cello patiently throughout the production with enormous empathy to the mood of the action on stage.

Have I written so glowingly before? No, I don’t think so. Maybe the writing is my cup of tea, I love the play. As well, there was not for me, an element of this production that did not pull its weight in the collaborative achievement of what I believe good theatre is.

If I were an actor in Sydney looking for a company to develop with I would look no further than SPORT FOR JOVE THEATRE. Intelligence, integrity, discipline, passion and love are all in evidence in this production of THE LIBERTINE. As I am an actor/director who would love to jump on board with this team, I’d like to let them know, I am available. Now, that is putting my mouth and body where my writing is, and a sign of my conviction.

Congratulations. As I mentioned in my blog on the NEDERLANDS DANCE THEATRE last month, one goes to the theatre often, simply hoping that this time it will be great – it was this time.



1. THE LIBERTINE, by Stephen Jeffreys, 1994.
2. ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Suzan-Lori Parks (In “The American Play, and Other Works”), 1995.

3 replies to “The Libertine”

  1. I agree with everything you said about The Libertine. I thought the play (which I don't know, nor the 2004 movie) was magnificent and the entire company were brilliant. As for Anthony Gooley's tour de force, I am in awe of his work in this piece. If there were any justice, he would never stop working for the big companies after this.

  2. Stanislavski wrote that Salvini was the "finest representative" of his own approach to acting.

    Salvini was so confident in his talents as an actor that he was once quoted as saying, "I can make an audience weep by reading them a menu."

    And to one of Russia's home-grown tragedians, who had lost his voice by drinking, and who asked Salvini what was necessary in order to become a tragedian, Salvini answered:

    “You need only three things: voice, voice, and more voice!”

    Salvini said this not only to hoarse tragedians but he repeated it at every opportunity, for like Possart, he attached a tremendous importance to the voice in tragic roles.

    The voice, Kevin. The voice…

  3. I heartily concur. This is easily the best production I have seen in Sydney in a long long time. As you make clear, every element approached perfection: how rare is that anywhere in the world? I stood and bravoed, and wish the entire audience had, for we must acknowledge excellence whenever we witness it. If only it were more often …

    If the young Toby Schmitz, in Richard Cottrell's excellent 1999 NIDA grad production, got the swagger of Rochester better in the first half, Gooley triumphed in the latter part; he and Susan Prior moved me close to tears, as I do not remember happening in the earlier production.

    You do well to dwell on the company's USING language – to advance character, energy, action, mood, concerns -, rather than just saying it, as most young Oz actors do. It was thrilling.

    What for me was a particular pleasure was to see a young(ish?) director who does not adopt the current orthodox aesthetic of 'what-can-I-do-with-this-pile-of-shit-to-put-my-stamp-on-it?'. (Barrie Kosky and the Schaubuhne have a lot to answer for.) Ironically, however, the director's stamp on the production, in the very act of being faithful to the author instead of trying to subvert him, to be auteur, was everywhere. It was a marvellously inventive production, though done on thrippence. As a sometime director, I found it enviably good, knowing that I would never have found the brilliant and simple solutions that were found.

    This production is required viewing: if you love theatre at all, you MUST see it.

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