London has been hit by the plague and those lucky or wealthy enough have fled the town. One gentleman in particular, the affluent Lovewit, escapes to the country, leaving his luxurious Blackfriars manor in the hands of his trusted butler, Jeremy, who little does he realise, plans to use the house as a base for dubious business.
In the wake of a doctor deficit and lack of genuine professionals, Jeremy recruits fellow conman, Subtle, and prostitute, Doll Common, to deceive gullible Londoners out of pocket, making The Alchemist a bit like watching a Jacobean version of the TV show, Hustle. Albeit faster and with more profanities.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the play was Shakespeare, but it was in fact written by the lesser-known English Playwright, Ben Jonson. It was first performed in 1610 by The King’s Men – the same acting company that Shakespeare was employed with, and is considered one of Jonson’s best works. That said it has undergone a much needed script update – playwright Stephen Jeffreys has cut out 20% – increasing the flow and clarity of the plot, as well as writing a new, original prologue. Polly Findlay, however, has daringly decided to direct the play with the 1600s Aesthetic, making the stage and theatre feel a bit like a time machine that takes us back to Jacobean times.
The stage, devised by RSC workshops, is set up as the interior of the mansion. Generously Jacobean in tone, soft candlelight gently illuminates the on-stage curiosities, including a giant crocodile dangling from the ceiling (historically a highly popular centrepiece for many an Alchemist) and a skull resting on a small wooden table. In the background we see tapestries, various antiquities and rich red drapes, masking off the unseen and mysterious sections of the house.
The play centres on three main characters. Jeremy aka the Butler or ‘Face as he is known to his friends’, played by the eloquent Ken Nwosu, adopts the con artist persona of ‘Captain’ and his costumes (Helen Goddard) help accentuate each character he plays; a somber green for his role of butler, or an eccentric lab coat and goggles as the Captain. Subtle, played by the brooding Mark Lockyer meanwhile takes on the Alchemist character with wise robes and long grey hair, and Dol Common, the pragmatic and coquettish prostitute is played by Siobhan McSweeney who dons various bright and attention-grabbing dresses. The standout performance though, comes from Ian Redford as the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammonn. His garrulous speech about delighting in his vices once he has obtained the philosopher’s stone gained such huge momentum so as to receive a rapturous applause. It is probably this moment that best defines the main themes of the play – or the follies, vices and vanities of mankind. But a delightful irony lies in the fact that the con artists are no different to their victims, ultimately undone by the same weaknesses they prey upon. Even the title itself – The Alchemist – is a metaphor for the conquest of the tricksters. We see them accumulate ‘gold’ from their victims and watch as the elements, or lies, become volatile and out of hand, ultimately and literally blowing up to epic proportions.
As with Shakespeare, a little prior knowledge of the play will aid your enjoyment of it. It’s one of those delicious works that allows the audience to revel in 17th century metaphors and subtle nuances of the beautiful old English language. Equally the play works on so many levels that even if you go along with no knowledge you will not be heeded from enjoying the glorious innuendos, spontaneous ramblings and moments of pure gold.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Alchemist at The Barbican Theatre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS until 1st October 2016. Images by Helen Maybanks. For more information and tickets please visit the website.