The Alchemist

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Polly Findlay's production, The Alchemist, which provides an illuminating lesson in how the 21st Century still fall foul to conmen and endless scams.

A scathing 400 year-old satire still retains a contemporary edge in Polly Findlay’s stylist production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist for the RSC, which was first staged at Stratford-Upon-Avon and is now at the Barbican Theatre.

The year is 1610, the place Blackfriars. When London is hit by the plague, the wealthy Lovewit flees to the country, leaving his townhouse in the hands of his trusted butler, Jeremy. But no sooner has his master left than Jeremy begins turning the house into a den of criminal activity. Assuming an alias, he recruits fellow conman Subtle and prostitute Dol Common to help him and sets out to rip-off half of London, promising various gullible customers wealth and success through alchemy, astrology and other means necessary.

Soon every knock at the door is another unwitting victim begging to be relieved of their cash. Things couldn’t be going better for this gleeful trio until they receive a very unwelcome visitor – the unexpected return of their master.

The play opens beautifully on designer Helen Goddard’s richly coloured variations of a Dutch still life painting – sparking glass, perishable roses and a skull hinting at mortality and the vanity of worldly goods – while and array of candles serves to heighten the atmosphere of the place.

Admittedly Jonson’s writing is at times difficult to decipher and the production does take a while to fully get in its stride, but its combination of wit, poetry and sharply defined characterisation provides an illuminating glimpse of a bygone era, as well as a lesson in how our smarter and more sophisticated 21st Century, deal with the constant scourge of conmen and the endless scams that so many people still seem to fall prey to.

The three rogues are all well played. Mark Lockyer a kind of hippy player-king preens powerfully as Subtle, the self-styled alchemist of the title. Ken Nwosu is impenetrably smooth and confident as the butler and front man, Face and newcomer Siobhán Mcsweeney is a real joy as their eager co-conspirator Dol Common.

Indeed anyone who has bought a lottery ticket and started planning a millionaire’s lifestyle can be regarded as a true descendent of Jonson’s deluded fools – our bankrupted age is the net result of a something-for-nothing culture.

The Alchemist

Playing at the Barbican Theatre until the 1 October 2016

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