The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
"YOU will hate me," proclaims Johnny Depp in the prologue to the Laurence Dunmore adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys's play about the scandalous life of 17th century poet and playwright John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester.
A challenge to be sure, since Depp is one of the finest, critically acclaimed contemporary screen actors, having appeared in films as diverse as Cry Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
However, Depp isn't referring to himself, but the self-confessed, eponymous Wilmot - a Restoration playwright and poet who is attributed with satirising Charles in Sodom and the Quintessence of Debauchery.
A product of a parliamentarian mother and royalist father, he was educated at Oxford and did the grand tour before earning his spurs against the Dutch and then carving out a career at the court of Charles II.
Although locked in the Tower for supposedly kidnapping the woman who was to become his wife, it was his satire of Charles that led him to transform himself into fake physician Doctor Bendo before trying his hand in the theatre.
Although much of his work was banned, destroyed or printed after his untimely death at 33, his galaxy of admirers included Defoe, Voltaire, Goethe, Hazlitt, Tennyson, Sade and, latterly, Jeffreys.
Depp's tour-de-force performance is intended to capture the evident spirit of the age as well as a man who disdained his fame and became a serial cynic of the court as described by George Etherege in The Man of Mode.
He and Etherege (Tom Hollander), the playwright William Wycherley and Charles Sackville (Johnny Vegas) were branded the Merry Gang because of their propensity for whoring, drunkenness and boisterous behaviour. No change there then.
Maintaining the myth that Wilmot coached his mistress Elizabeth Barry to become a great stage actress, it features Samantha Morton in a part that couldn't stand comparison with that of her mentor.
Like the recent film Stage Beauty, we are supposed to believe that Wilmot was capable of instilling the Method into his charges, convincing Barry to feel her part, to become one with the character, rather than simply a shouter with good looks.
John Malkovich, who played the libertine when Jeffrey's play was produced in Chicago, acts the part of Charles, a role that proves better than anything that he's done before, although I doubt that Charles was so clever.
Pleading with Wilmot to stop frittering away his talent, he suggests that he play his part in the Lords to save the succession - "it's fun being against things, but there comes a time when one must be for things."
Yes, like keeping a gang of debauched criminals in charge. Again, things don't seem to have changed much.
Nor did Wilmot keep up his opposition. It's recorded that he made his peace with God aged 33 while dying of syphilis.
Still, this is well worth seeing for Depp and Malkovich, nor does it pander to pretty period costumes since it's all seen through a miasma of mud.
A greater focus on the badinage of the miscreants might have made it more amenable.