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Outrageous, upfront ... a 17th-century pop star

'Allow me to be frank at the commencement:

John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was a source of embarrassment to Charles II, with his adventures in sex, alcohol and atheism back in the 17th-century
John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was a source of embarrassment to Charles II, with his adventures in sex, alcohol and atheism back in the 17th-century

you will not like me ... you will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on." So says John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, in the superb prologue to Stephen Jeffreys's drama The Libertine.

The character's insistence upon the audience's antipathy towards him is well-founded. Rochester was the most notorious rake of 17th-century England. A friend and confidante of Charles II, he embarrassed the King with his debauched adventures in sex and alcohol, his atheism and his extraordinary line in pornographic, satirical theatre (replicated in a substantial body of poetry, most of which was not published under his name until after his death from syphilis at the age of 33).

First staged in 1994, and made into a movie (starring Johnny Depp as Rochester) in 2004, the play is soon to receive a 20th anniversary production at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. In many ways, the Gorbals playhouse is the perfect place to stage this bold, brazen, poetic and imaginative drama.

Take a look at the list of plays staged at the Citz in the 1970s (the early years of Giles Havergal's acclaimed, three-decade directorship), and it seems clear that, had Jeffreys's play been written, it would have fitted the theatre's repertoire. A drama about the crash and burn of Rochester would have sat very comfortably alongside such plays as Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's bodice-ripper Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Robert David MacDonald's De Sade Show.

There is no doubt that Dominic Hill, the Citz's current artistic director, sees the staging of The Libertine as a logical continuation of a tradition. "The Citz feels like the right place for the play," he says, "both as an auditorium and in terms of the history of this building. This theatre has always celebrated theatricality, and it's been risqué. We have an audience here who enjoy that kind of drama."

By "that kind of drama" Hill means the type of play which pushes moral boundaries while also engaging deeply and seriously with the emotions and the intellect.

"It's funny, it's bawdy, it's rude," the director says of Jeffreys's drama. "However, it's also very profound in what it's saying about the role of theatre and art in life. There's lots in the play about what art and theatre can do to give form and meaning to the chaotic world that we live in. I find that very powerful. Not for a long time have I heard that idea articulated as succinctly and beautifully as it is in this play."

The profundity of the piece comes from what Hill calls the "existential crisis" of its protagonist, whose amorality was greatly challenged by his unexpected and genuine love for the actress Elizabeth Barry. According to the director, Rochester - who will be played at the Citz by sometime Royal Shakespeare Company actor Martin Hutson - is a "modern character". The ill-fated Earl is "a man who has decided or discovered that God doesn't exist. He lives in this sort of Hobbesian world where life appears to be completely meaningless, and he has to find ways of deadening the pain.

"He does it mainly through alcohol and sex. The pity of the man is hugely resonant today. It's as much about modern pop stars as it is about a poet in the 17th century. In fact, Rochester was a pop star of his day."

As should be clear by now, anyone hoping The Libertine will be a straightforward history play, offering some kind of academic exploration of post-Restoration England, is likely to be disappointed. "It's not a documentary," Hill explains. "We're allowing the period to tell us a story and comment on our own lives."

The days have gone when Citz productions led to howls of moral outrage, but the play will still raise a few eyebrows, not least where its somewhat purple, highly sexualised vocabulary is concerned. "There's nothing coy about it," the director acknowledges.

However, he insists, "It's not actually a play about sex. It celebrates the upfrontness of Rochester's behaviour and his poems."

As coincidence would have it, Hill and the Citz staff have been putting together applications for refurbishment funds for the playhouse during the rehearsal period for The Libertine. Doing both things simultaneously has reminded the director of why he has fallen so in love with the old theatre.

"It would be cheaper to knock the Citz down and build a new theatre," he comments, "but this theatre, that auditorium, have a kind of magic.

"In many ways it's not an architectural magic, it's got something to do with the relationship between that stage and the auditorium. It has a capacity to be epic and intimate at the same time. It's a unique auditorium in the UK, I think. It allows plays like this to come alive."

Few human beings were as conspicuously alive as Rochester, who, in the words of Samuel Johnson, "blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness". The Citizens seems like the perfect place to bring him to life once more.

The Libertine is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-24. For further information, visit citz.co.uk

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