The Alchemist – October 2006

Experience: 9/10

By Ben Jonson

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th October 2006

          What fun! The programme notes were very interesting, and I got a huge amount out of this production. Lovely to see not only Simon Russell Beale but also Alex Jennings, whom I haven’t seen for a long time on stage.

The set was another lovely revolve, with two sides of a large room, and masses of doors. A staircase ran up one side of the semi-building, with a door at the top. The style was more Victorian than early 1600s, and the costumes were circa 1950? All these elements worked very well together – the production was clear, and stylish, without being cluttered. A good job too, as the action becomes pretty frantic as the play reaches its climax.

The two male leads are busy arguing at the start of the play. Alex Jennings’ character, Subtle, considers he is the sole provider for the team of con men, while Simon Russell Beale’s character, Face, is pointing out how much work both he and Doll Common do to bring in the dosh. She acts as peacekeeper between them (this involves partly strangling Subtle, so not trained by the UN, then), and gets them to hug and make up, though you can see that rivalry and tension still lurks beneath the surface.

Once they’re into their cons, though, everything starts to go more smoothly. This first scene reminded me of The Tempest, strangely enough, with the quarrelling between Prospero and Caliban. I also noticed that Doll Common emphasises that all their goods are to be held in common, which was something the Anabaptists believed in – perhaps a deliberate reference?

The cons are good fun. A young clerk wants to win at gaming, and believes that the Docto’ will be able to give him a fairy to help him win all the time. (There’s one born every 10 seconds in thisLondon!) An Asian shopkeeper wants advice on the best way to set up his store to maximise profits, and also wants help to snare a young, rich widow. The widow wants her fortune told to find out whom she’ll marry, while her brother, a young Hooray Henry up from the country, wants to be taught how to quarrel. Given the modern dress, this allows for much business with attempted African-American culture. Or Ali G, depending on preference. Very funny.

There’s also a wealthy knight with itchy palms, who wants the philosopher’s stone, so he can turn just about everything into gold and rule the universe, at least for starters. And since he’s given the Doctor loads of pewter and tin plate, the con men also arrange to sell the stuff to some overly serious Puritans. And that’s just in the first half! Face has to switch between the Captain, a suave man about town, who pulls in the marks, and a foreign servant, somewhat resembling Ygor from most Frankenstein movies, shuffling around in a leather apron, looking sinister. Subtle basically just plays the Doctor, an alchemist and fortune-teller, but he has different personas to sell his character to the different marks. So for most people he puts on an American drawl, wearing a headband, sunglasses and beads round his neck, hippy-style. For the Puritans, though, he adopts a different approach, with tweed suit, proper glasses, and a serious demeanour coupled with a Scottish accent. Face also uses a Scottish accent when the Puritans are around. Doll’s main character is a widow, sister of a Lord somebody-or-other (fictitious, I think). She is very intelligent but has a mania. She can’t bear to hear any talk of the Talmud, or Moses, or anything Jewish. Apart from that, she’s fine. And, given her looks, there’s many a man would overlook the odd flaw. They’re lining her up to be taken by the knight, thereby ruining his chance of getting the philosopher’s stone – any naughty business in the house will cause the delicate process of creating the stone to go awry – so they can filch all his money and get away with it. The stone’s demise is accompanied by an almighty explosion, flames, and smoke. Poor Face is covered in soot, especially his face, and it’s a wonderfully funny scene.

There’s one potential hitch. A character called Surly, a friend of the knight, is being lined up for a con, but fails to appear. Instead, he’s setting the con men up by pretending to be a rich Spanish nobleman, in need of sex. This is Surly in disguise. By the time he gets to the house, there are so many other cons under way, that Doll isn’t available, so they decide to set him up with the young widow, telling her that her destiny is to marry a Spanish nobleman. So far, so good. However, Surly explains all to her, and while he’s so taken with her that he wants to marry her, he still confronts the con artists and threatens to expose them publicly. Despite this, the various marks running around the place come to their aid, and chase Surly off. The shopkeeper wants the widow himself, and so on. The character switches the con men are having to do get faster and furiouser, and eventually, all the marks have been seen off (or have they?), and the money safely gathered in.

The clerk who wanted a fairy, and was expecting to see the fairy queen, (his aunt, apparently) was shoved into the privy while some other scam was dealt with, and finally chews his way through the gingerbread gag. At this point, the con artists are packing up as they’ve seen the house’s real owner arriving. Face is looking after the house for his master, and while he’s away fromLondonto avoid the plague, the others have been using the house to ply their trade. As they pack up, Face dons his usual suit, and appears on a balcony to rubbish the neighbours’ reports of lots of people going in and out of the house at all hours. The house has been locked up all this while, he claims, and might just get away with it, but for noises from the privy and the knight and Surly arriving, with the police, ready to break the door down. They enter, but can’t find any evidence of the people the knight and Surly have reported, so go away empty-handed. Meantime, Face comes clean about the whole shenanigans, and sets his master up with the young widow. While they’re off getting married, the three tricksters put all their money into the one box, and lock it, giving Face the key – bad move. He then announces that his master knows all, and sends the other two packing – no honour amongst thieves here. It turns out Face sent for his boss deliberately, and for his reward, he’s given a small (very small) token of gratitude. As the other marks turn up, demanding whatever goods they think they’re entitled to, the master of the house rebuffs them all. He’s got the pewter and tin plate, all the money, and a new wife to boot, and is very pleased with himself. But I’d be careful – Face knows a trick or two, and I wouldn’t put it past him to swindle his master before long.

There’s a huge amount of plot in this, and a lot of background information in the programme as well, about tobacco, alchemy and Puritans. The language is very dense, and I still didn’t get much more than half of it, but what I did get I thoroughly enjoyed. Some of it may have been updated – I would need to check with the text – but it all worked brilliantly. It was the first time Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale had worked together, and it was superb casting. They’re both strong enough to play these parts to the hilt, and I’m not sure I’ll see a funnier production than this. All the other actors were great, too. Special mention to Julian Curry, who stepped in to play Lovewit, the owner of the house. He gave a lovely performance, and didn’t let on that he was in on the plot. Also Tristan Beint was excellent as the quarrelsome young man.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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