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The RSC Works Its Magic

The Alchemist
by Ben Jonson
directed by Polly Findlay
Barbican Theatre

This London transfer from Stratford is pure gold, with all the hallmarks of a glittering summer run that's played to appreciative audiences night after night. The cast of money-hungry villains positively glows with wicked energy without taking itself too seriously -- crucial in a play that in the wrong hands can come across as overly moralistic and tediously silly. A high carat RSC production gives us a well-polished, sparklingly entertaining version of Ben Jonson's masterpiece, an early example of the farce genre and one of the best. I wish the two and a half hours had gone on for longer, although Stephen Jeffreys' edited script, which cuts 20 percent of the original text, undoubtedly adds to the dazzling dynamism on display here.

The Alchemist might even be said to be an early sitcom as the comedy takes place in one house, in London's Blackfriars in 1610. Designer Helen Goddard's huge sumptuous set has a golden aura provided by numerous candles, while a much-used trapdoor centre stage is just one of several points where the motley crew of cutpurses, pimps, and greedy caricatures make their many comings and goings. A crocodile dangles from the ceiling and ingeniously doubles as a money box for the criminals' ill-gotten gains, while a giant bell clangs whenever anyone's at the door. Towards the play's end when the master of the house, Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) returns, the set brilliantly transforms into a street scene with a gossiping gallery of neighbours positioned high, low, left, right and in the audience. Their hearsay and rumours shock the master with what's been going on during his trip to the country to escape the plague.

The plague was almost omnipresent in London in the years before Ben Jonson wrote The Alchemist, and his own young son died of it. Plague, however, provides a dodgy business opportunity to Jonson's triumvirate of rogues, and the three actors skilfully convey their despicable amorality combined with a loveable 'Del Boy' Trotter entrepreneurialism. With the exception of the dim Abel Drugger, played rather sweetly for maximum audience sympathy by Richard Leeming, and a 19 year-old widow (Rosa Robson's Dame Pliant), the victims are all hilariously unpleasant, so deserve to be fleeced. Ian Redford's wonderfully over-egged Sir Epicure Mammon in particular acts up to his name; his long speeches listing the infinite riches he expects when the alchemist turns his base metals into gold repeatedly leave the audience in stitches. 

Mark Lockyer's excellent Subtle, the alchemist, is a cross between comedian Billy Connolly and Frank Gallagher from TV's Shameless, with a bit of Bernard Madoff thrown in. Greasy in appearance and by his duping actions, he delights in using pseudo-scientific terminology to the suckers who lap up his promises of untold wealth (for a small fee). One partner in crime, Face, is played expertly as a smooth operator by Ken Nwosu, who shines brightest at the very end in the new epilogue which is amusingly in the spirit of Jonson's original. The other accomplice, Dol Common, is superbly acted by Siobhan McSweeney who literally attains great heights when she's hysterically hoisted up by a rope to become a fairie queene. 

Polly Findlay's fast-paced direction, the actors' pitch perfect line delivery and relish in the word play, fabulous visual comedy, lavish period costumes, live musicians and the great set all make this a memorable take on Jonson's farcical morality play. Thanks to some bone-rattling pyrotechnics, you could even call it explosive. 


Phil Roe

photos | ©Helen Maybanks

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