When Ben Jonson wrote The Alchemist in 1610 London was in the aftermath of its third plague epidemic in eighteen years.
The capital was still seen as dangerous for groups of people to gather together in public places, so the play had its debut in Oxford. Although the playwright was no stranger to London's dark alleyways full of crime and prostitution, he was fortunate in later that he later attended Westminster school, one of the most famous in England, where he was privy to the finest of classical educations. These conflicting extremes of Jonson's background informed much of his writing.
While Lovewit is out of town, his servant Face breakfasts with pimp Subtle and his 'associate' Dol Common in his elegant house, speculating about the scam they've dreamed up. Each knows their place, so plans are quickly set in motion with prostitute Dol anticipating posh new clients, Face becoming a Captain, and Subtle, the pimp and con man, posing as an alchemist capable of turning any metal into pure gold.
Jonson's seventeenth century theatrical language, juxtaposed with elements of kitsch, contemporary dress and accoutrements adds to the overall tone of outlandishness. Both Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale speak their somewhat grandiose lines with obvious delight and play their con-man roles as broadly as possible. However, Beale's 'cor blimey' accent, interspersed with the 'feigned' speaking voice of his alter ego, the Captain tends to waver. An air of artificiality may have made the Captain's lines even more amusing and after a time, Beale's exaggerated mockney accent tended to grate. In some of his more ridiculous scenes, it almost seemed as though he'd escaped from an Igor (you rang?) audition. Such over the top posturing was highly comical, especially from a renowned actor like Beale, and gave strong indications of his comedic prowess, but nonetheless seemed out of place here.
Jennings' fares better with his attempt at the notoriously difficult London working class accent. However, his 'stereotypes on parade,' characterizations, which range from a California hippy dippy queen, through a ranting and raving Scotsman to all knowing, new age alchemist lose their novelty somewhat as the performance goes on. Only Lesley Manville, in her role as prostitute Dol Common acts with real conviction within the context of her role, right down to her ostrich featured heels and the ladders in her tarty black stockings. Manville somehow manages to keep the feel of her lines referenced with the time they were written, whilst dressed in the sixties toned fashions assigned to her character, and assuming contemporary mannerisms to good comic effect. Despite all the modern trappings, the only thing missing is a strategically placed beauty spot. It is as if the actress had been swept into the present day from the seventeenth century unflinching, whilst batting her long eyelashes.
However, despite the overall unevenness of their performances, it is still great fun to watch Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, who've never acted together before, savour their ferocious bantering, like a couple of great cats hissing at one another across the stage. The fine supporting cast features Ian Richardson, as Sir Epicure Mammon and John Burgess, as Lovewit, Owner of the house of cards his wily servant Face plays in.
This production of The Alchemist appears to be the mother of all farces with all its opening and closing doors, and fast exits and entrances. And its promises of alchemy are tantalizing ones, offering some glittering moments, despite its unevenness. But under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, its feet are planted too lightly in the then, and the now, without ever being grounded enough in either place, to allow it ample room in which to become real gold.
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