Alice Dickerson

The Alchemist at the Rose Theatre

Try as it might, this production is unable to turn a dud play into something more fantastic.

Sir Trevor Nunn said recently that reviving an old play, untouched in centuries, is one of the most desirable, and elusive, ambitions of a theatre director. Having been performed on numerous occasions during the twentieth century, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist is not quite a neglected masterpiece, yet it is not widely known to a modern-day audience. Given this relative unfamiliarity, pulling off a successful revival would be something of a theatrical coup.

The plot of The Alchemist centres on three undesirables, two conmen and a prostitute, who attempt to exploit the naiveties and superstitions of their fellowmen in order to profit. A succession of characters come to them, also mostly motivated out of greed, and the three protagonists use pseudo science to humiliate and cheat them out of their money.

There is little action and what there is takes place in the one room. The play therefore hangs on the quality and delivery of the dialogue between the characters. And this, unfortunately, is where the Rose's production of The Alchemist falters. The scenes are meant to be chaotic and farcical, yet the actors generate so much noise and excitement the audience are unable to appreciate what limited subtleties there are to the script. The echo created by the Rose's vast, underground space does not help, magnifying the cries and shouts of the cast. Jerome Thompson as Face and James Burgess as Subtle, the two conmen, are good actors. Yet even they succumb to hammy acting, meaning those actors that are supposed to be playing characters acting badly, are simply badly acting.

The Rose Theatre's desire to showcase well-know and lesser-known Elizabethan plays is admirable. Yet, by limiting itself to this period, the quality of its output is sometimes diminished. The Rose occupies a unique space in London's theatre scene and should therefore consider looking more widely for what Sir Trevor termed 'discarded jewels'.

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