Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Stephen Jeffreys - The Libertine

Sex and drugs and rock and roll may have been a phrase introduced into
the world by the late Ian Dury in the post-punk 1970s, but such
hedonistic excesses have been around for centuries. Back in the 1600s,
for instance, Restoration poet and one of King Charles 11's court, John
Wilmot, aka the second Earl of Rochester, took full advantage of the
era's post puritan anything goes aesthetic to become the ultimate
libertine. Rochester's penchant for self-destructive behaviour, alas,
saw him dead at thirty-three of venereal disease.

All of this features in The Libertine, Stephen Jeffreys' flamboyant
drama made famous a decade ago in a film starring Johnny Depp, and
which receives its first UK production in two decades at the Citzens
Theatre in Glasgow next week. Given the Citz's own colourful history
with decadent period romps, this seems an all too fitting liaison.

“Rochester was a celebrity of the day,” says Jeffreys. “He was like a
rock star, and because London at the time was relatively small, you
could cause quite a splash just leaving your house and going for a cup
of coffee. But what annoyed Rochester was that he couldn't be the King.
He couldn't be number one. So he found all these ways to draw attention
to himself. Here was this man possessed with every possible talent, but
who decides to waste them as a statement on the meaninglessness of
life. Rochester lived this excessive life even as he hated it, and in a
way, romantic love, and how it can consume you so completely, was his
downfall.”

The roots of The Libertine date back to 1975, when Jeffreys' dentist
was off-loading the more adult areas of his book-shelf to patients so
as not to lead his increasingly curious thirteen year old daughter
astray. Jeffreys was gifted a copy of Rochester's tellingly named play,
SODOM.

“I don't think I'd heard of Rochester then,” says Jeffreys, “but it was
a green Olympia Press edition of what turned out to be what's probably
the filthiest play in the English language.”

Only seventeen years later while working as literary associate at the
Royal Court Theatre under then artistic director Max Stafford-Clark did
Jeffreys have a notion to dramatise Rochester's life, and only then
after another writer had proffered an interest.

What ended up as The Libertine was eventually produced in 1994 by
Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company in a double bill with an actual
seventeenth century play, George Etherege's The Man of Mode.

“At the time, the seventeenth century seemed more real to me than life
under John Major,” Jeffrey says. “I'd got very bored with all these
grim naturalistic plays, and I'd already written a play called The
Clink, which was about the death of Elisabeth 1. That opened in London
the week Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, so seemed to say
something about life in 1990s Britain.”

Jeffreys wasn't alone in his move away from naturalism. When The
Libertine was first seen at the Royal Court, Sarah Kane's debut play,
Blasted, was causing a furore in the venue's upstairs theatre. Both, in
different ways, announced how drama, like the world, was changing.

“It was Christmas, and there was snow on the ground,” Jeffreys
remembers, “and I remember looking out of a window from the theatre,
and on one side, Harold Pinter was walking towards the theatre, and on
the other side Edward Bod was doing the same. At first I thought they
were coming to see my play, then I realised they were coming to see
Sarah's. But they were both kind of scandalous plays. Both were
explosive in their own way.”

While contemporary parallels with Rochester are rife, in terms of the
the seriousness with which he took his own self-destruction, latter-day
poet wastrels such as Pete Doherty don't come close.

“It's interesting that some of the more recent casualties of a
self-destructive lifestyle are female,” Jeffreys observes. “Amy
Winehouse, she was a Rochester figure, in that she was someone who was
supremely talented. With Rochester, though, there was an entire
philosophy behind how he behaved, which is far more interesting than
someone who just takes lots of drugs for the hell of it.”

Historical figures have played a big part in Jeffreys' work, dating
right back to his early days writing a version of Carmen for the
Edinburgh-based Communicado company in 1984. Jeffreys had been working
with Pocket Theatre company at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal with
actors Rob Pickavance, Alison Peebles and Gerry Mulgrew when the idea
to found Communicado came up. It was his mother, according to Jeffreys,
who came up with the name for a company which has used history in
similar ways to himself.

“There was a point,” Jeffreys says, “when I was better known as a
writer in Scotland than England.”

Since Carmen, Jeffreys has penned a version of seventeenth century
comedy, A Jovial Crew, and, for Out of Joint, a new version of John
Gay's The Beggar's Opera, reimagined as The Convict's Opera.

More recently, Jeffreys co-wrote a stage adaptation of Iain Softley's
1994 John Lennon bio-pic, Backbeat, an earlier version of which had
originally premiered at the Citizens. Jeffreys also wrote the
screenplay of Diana, which cast Naomi Watts as the doomed people's
princess.

“In a way I'd rather not do it,” Jeffreys admits, “and just write
something purely fictional instead. What you do, I suppose, if you're
putting real events in your work, is finding out what happened, then
changing it. With John Lennon, you've got this whole life in the
spotlight with the Beatles, and with Diana, you've got a great deal of
biographical information, but you have to get beyond all that and find
out about something you don't know about. You don't want to rehearse
well-known facts.”

While Rochester isn't a household name, Jeffreys has given his subject
the kind of immortality he craved.

“It's about waste,” he says of the play, “and deliberately wasting a
talent. I never knew that when I started writing it, but it's a very
sexy play as well, very theatrical. It's like the difference between
getting a box of fireworks and looking at the label that says how much
they explode, then watching them launch themselves into the air and see
what happens. That's when things become really exciting.”

The Libertine, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-24
www.citz.co.uk

ends


Libertines Through The Ages

Lord Byron – While often regarded as the original libertine, poet
George Gordon Byron was born into the Romantic age a century or so
later. Inbetween penning lengthy narrative poems, Byron ran up huge
debts and had affairs with both sexes. There were rumours of an affair
with his half-sister, before Byron went into self-imposed exile in
Italy and Greece, where he died of fever aged thirty-six.

Marquis de Sade – Possibly the most notorious of all libertines, the
aristocratic Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade cut a swathe through
eighteenth and early nineteenth century France with a multitude of
literary works that fused philosophy and sexual fantasy. De Sade lived
his life as he wrote it, and spent some thirty-two years in prison,
gifting the world the notion of sadism. De Sade embarked on a four year
affair with a fourteen year old before dying aged seventy-four in 1814.

Peter Doherty – A man so in love with the image of a poet wastrel
ruffian that he named his band The Libertines, Doherty became tabloid
fodder, both for his misadventures with drugs and his high profile
affair with supermodel Kate Moss. Beyond all this lay a talented
songwriter who inspired devotion among a young fan-base.

Sebastian Horsley – Born in Yorkshire in 1962, and originally named
Marcus, Horsley cut a dash through Edinburgh's post-punk scene of the
1980s, was filmed being crucified in the Philippines so he could paint
on the subject, wrote about how he preferred sex with prostitutes and
held court to a Soho demi-monde. All of this was detailed in Horsley's
2007 autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld, which was turned into a
play in 2010 adapted by Tim Fountain. Horsley attended the opening
night, and was found dead of a heroin and cocaine overdose two days
later.

The Herald, April 22nd 2014


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