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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Alchemist

You abominable pair of stinkers!
---- Dol Common
The Alchemist
Simon Russell Beale as Face and Alex Jennings as Subtle
(Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
The Alchemist may be known as one of Jonson’s great comic masterpieces, but it has proved peculiarly difficult to stage. Its archaic language, contemporary satirical targets, and obscure allusions are all formidable hindrances to any modern production. The National Theatre’s production attempts to counteract this obstacle with a top-notch cast and an abundance of slapstick farce.

The plot, which Coleridge called one of the three most perfect in all literature, is basically a comic exposition of human folly. The servant Face (Simon Russell Beale) takes advantage of his master’s absence to invite two fellow conmen into the house and perpetrate a number of scams wrought against the gullible and greedy. Subtle (Alex Jennings) poses as an alchemist with astrological insight and Dol Common (Lesely Manville) adds her feminine allure to their fraud. The tricksters hectically juggle their various personae, each suited the to particular mark.

The unprecedented partnership of Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, two of Britain’s most prestigious stage actors, has been the main selling-point of this production. Indeed, the range of the disguises they each adopt means that every con feels like an individual mini-play. This production emphasizes the fact that scamming and acting are both pretence, and they are also a form of alchemy: creating something unexpectedly glorious out of simple, unformed material.

The decision to make this a modern dress production has borne out very successfully. The characters which Face and Subtle assume are witty, inventive and diverse. Jennings’ alchemist is a new-age delight as Californian-accented, camp guru with hippie sandals, headscarf and beads. His pious, Buddhist-style monk and Scots accountant give him the chance to show off his versatility. Simon Russell Beale switches between a naval captain and a begoggled, limping assistant with a dodgy European accent.

The gulls add further to this gallery of caricatures. This includes two fanatical yet greedy Puritans, Ananias (Sam Spruell) and Tribulation Wholesome (Ian Barritt) are clad with anoraks and socks beneath their sandals. The wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (a disappointingly flat performance by Ian Richardson) is portrayed as a rich city banker, complete with cane and shiny shoes as he reveals his obsession with the most excessive sensual pleasures. However, Bryan Dick is excellent as Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk fooled into believing that he is fortuitously related to the Queen of Fairy and guaranteed unadulterated success when gambling. There are also a tobacconist, Abel Drugger (Amit Shah) and a brother and sister pair Kastril (Tristan Beint) and Dame Pliant (Elisabeth Dermot Walsh).

The design by Mark Thompson is well-suited to the play with a real sense of the city. The set is surrounded by front doors of a London street, whilst in the centre is a large open-plan reception room of an obviously expansive town house. The centre room revolves and, with a staircase and multiple doors, the set gives the actors variety in their movements. As this play adheres to the classical unity of space, there was the danger of appearing static but this is cleverly avoided.

In spite of many good features, this production does not quite induce the hilarity which it promises. Without the benefit of the esoteric jokes which only Jonsonian contemporaries or scholars can appreciate, the humour instead relies far too much on bawdy farce. The characters smoke, fart, nose-pick and use dirty language. The in-joke is of course that actors of such respectable stature should act in this way. However, running at almost three hours long, this play really needed more comic ingenuity. The characters themselves are strangely uninvolving, the victims neither despicable or sympathetic enough, whilst the tricksters provide a display of acting virtuosity but little else.

Written by Ben Jonson
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Simon Russell Beale, Alex Jennings, Lesley Manville, Ian Richardson
With: Sarah Annis, Ian Barritt, Tristan Beint, Natalie Best, John Burgess, Jason Cheater, Paul Chesterton, John Cummins, Bryan Dick, Elisabeth Dermot Walsh, Simon Markey, Andrew McDonald, Tim McMullan, Amit Shah, Sam Spruell
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Rich Walsh
Music: Grant Olding
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0207 420 3000
Booking to 21st November 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge on 21st September 2006 performance at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, south Bank, London SE1(Rail/Tube: Waterloo)


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