The Alchemist – especially in its current form at the RSC – is undoubtedly one of the funniest plays I have ever seen. And although there are many factors that contribute to such a verdict – such as the stratospheric quality of Ben Jonson’s wit; the exquisite timing of all the actors; the wonderful set design and lighting; the overarching production values, and its perpetually accelerating momentum – I think it is the underlying contemporaneity, the applicability to our current political travails (however weighty and dour), which contributes (maybe paradoxically) more than anything to that humorous affect. In helping us recognize our current plight – but then simultaneously, for around two-and-a-half hours, shedding light on them (even making light of them) – it enables us, temporarily, to breathe a little easier; gain a little perspective; and emerge from the theatre after going through a rather intellectually undemanding (however edifying and effective) bout of mindfulness. As Peter Ustinov once said: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”
Even though there were captions for last night’s performance – courtesy of Beverley Ward (thank you!): some of whose music cues had the audience primed for laughter from the off… – I had finally gotten around to reading the original text. This not only reinforced my earlier admiration for Stephen Jeffreys’ insightful, incisive editing of the play (and his wonderful punting of the “snurk”); but led me to read Colin Counsell’s perspicacious introduction to the Drama Classics edition, which had, until now, lain idle on my bedside table.
I must admit that – even after witnessing the uproarious public understudy performance – I was astounded by the parallels Counsell elicits (although subtly; and probably unintentionally) between the 1610 period setting (and authorship) and today’s world of post-truth politics. My initial reaction was plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – but that would be to oversimplify matters.
For instance – in my mind, drawing parallels with today’s ‘shirker’ or ‘scrounger’ meme (and its ever-multiplying offspring of hate crimes…) – he writes of Elizabeth I’s response (the Poor Laws of 1597 and 1601) to the proliferation of “masterless men” who “wandered the countryside begging”. These Acts decreed “severe punishment for ‘persistent and able-bodied idlers’.” That is to say, Tudor sanctions.
He also discusses “the disguises that are employed in the service of illusion and misrepresentation” – which feel painfully prescient:
But misrepresentation is not limited to the rogues, for most of the characters at some time or another present themselves misleadingly…. Misrepresentation is central not only to the play’s action, but to each of its characters as well… [mirroring] the devices and conventions of theatre itself.
Discussing the pivotal rôle of Face/Jeremy, he writes that “[his] skill lies not merely in disguise, in illusion, but in tailoring illusions to fit the desires of the onlookers…”. One only has to think of the way the population of the United Kingdom has been wilfully gulled into leaving the EU to realize that we always do get fooled again, no matter our supposed resolve. As Alexis Conran writes in the programme – under the title The Oldest Trick – “I’m afraid it is part of our human nature…. We are, always have been and will continue to be hooked on the idea of getting something for nothing.”
Allied with such ideas is the description of “most foolish” Kastril – “the most lacking in self-knowledge”. Does this sound familiar?
‘Quarrelling’ is for him an end in itself; the meaning of words, the reasons for any disagreement, are of no importance when compared to the image… he wishes to contrive…. In the London of The Alchemist almost everyone lies for greed’s sake, and the trio of villains are distinguished only by the skill they bring to the task.
That each of this principal tripartite is so willing, at a moment’s notice, to knife the others – in the front or back; or with a slash to the throat… – also, of course, has current parallels: and provides the play with a continuously interwoven thread of threat (without which, the humour would have no necessary contrast – you need light to create the shadows…).
I admit that some of these parallel interpretations are subjective and subliminal – but I also believe that the more one knows about a drama, and the social environment in which it was created (and therefore encapsulates), the more one comprehends and enjoys it (even if most of that learning, as in my case, swiftly scurries away to the dark, cobwebbed, infrequently-visited corners of my mind). Surely, this is one of the reasons we so eagerly purchase programmes?
Anyway, enough of the deep and meaningless… – back to the funny stuff…!
In some ways, there’s not much to add to my original review – except, of course, that, last night, we had the ‘permanent’ cast. Although this added more of that insight and dark intensity, it did remove the lighter, higher moments of farce – especially when actors were doubling up on-stage, and having to talk to themselves! This performance therefore felt more developed, more nuanced (something it is nigh impossible to achieve with only one go at it, and with very little rehearsal: which is not to say that the understudies were anything other than exceptionally wonderful). Indeed, it was fascinating to see how characters (and even whole scenes) were rendered, in some cases, very differently – although, again, there is obviously a validity to each actor’s interpretation and delivery.
I had expected Hywel Morgan, as Lovewit, to be in The Dirty Duck (sipping a mineral water, of course…) until the second half – but he made a wonderful storming exit just as the play started; and his return was similarly powerful. I hope I am not giving away too much to say that he almost gains the upper hand: gradually evolving from flustered, confused master of a house he doesn’t quite recognize to confident and cunning master of his own, much-improved fate. Morgan’s eyes twinkled with increasing brightness as he took control – his was the agency for each gull’s realization that they had been duped by their own stupidity and greed; and his increasing delight at the increase in his fortunes came with huge helpings of relish and aplomb!
Ken Nwosu played Jeremy and/or Face (which came first, I wonder?) with similar great talent and enthusiasm; and a massive amount of finesse. It would be easy to render these characters as cartoonish; but along with Mark Lockyer’s charismatic, moody Subtle (the eponymous “alchemist”), and Siobhan McSweeney’s tantalizing, luminous Dol, this was a trio of spiky, yet assured miscreants: whose entwined relationships were always just a thin blade away from disintegrating, and where honour had very little to contribute. (Perhaps they should start a political party?) They are the pivot around which the whole plot revolves; and they played it to perfection – always knowing when to pull back to let others shine; and when to dominate the stage – which they did with consummate ease. Their changes of mood and identity were palpable: instant transformations of season and stormy weather – a fantastic core ensemble: rendered even more amazing by the fact that they were surrounded by actors of equally high calibre.
Joshua McCord (the dim-witted Dapper) – as he has done all season, in both Doctor Faustus and Don Quixote – proved what great timing he possesses; as well as great versatility. The same can be said for Richard Leeming (Abel Drugger) – there is a lot going on behind that cheeky, boyish smile: a nascent charisma that I think has the potential to be very special indeed.
Timothy Speyer (almost unrecognizable behind a mass of tangled hairs as Tribulation Wholesome) and John Cummins (probably my favourite of this year’s outstanding core Swan cohort – here, as Ananias) made a superb, quarrelsome pair of protesting Dutch Protestants – for some reason, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau came to mind… – although I must admit to slightly missing Will Bliss’ canny, split-personality playing of both halves: as he did in the understudy tour de force.
Tom McCall, as Kastril – “He’s not a gentleman, he’s a very angry boy!” – was simply bonkers (in the best meaning of the word); demonstrating a wonderful contrast to his portrayal of the spiteful Benvolio in Faustus. Rosa Robson – another key member of the gifted Swan company – as his sister, Dame Pliant, was equally amusing: just not quite as insane!
Tim Samuels (Sir Pertinax Surly) was demonstrably as gruff and sardonic as his name would imply – but his transformation into a supposed jolly Spanish nobleman was quite remarkable. Superb character acting – demonstrating the skill that made him so memorable in The Merchant of Venice. But the night – just by the teensiest of margins – belonged to Ian Redford as Sir Epicure Mammon. A gigantic, red-faced, bumbling, faux-sophisticated, swaggering, almost Dickensian fool rendered in Glorious Technicolor and Stereophonic Sound. Simply magnificent! I even felt sad, as he left the stage, relieved of his possessions and false beliefs. He encapsulated the credulity we are all so easily lulled into in a way that was both charming and alarming: a warning to us all to look before leaping.
Seriously (if you see what I mean), this is not to be missed. On only for another four weeks in Stratford-upon-Avon – so grab your tickets (I have two more visits) whilst you can. Oh, and don’t worry about looking for those murky undertones – just sit back and have the time of your laugh, er, life…. Wonderfully good medicine!
The sickness hot, a master quit, for fear,
His house in town: and one servant left there.
Ease him corrupted, and gave means to know
A cheater, and his punk; who, now brought low,
Leaving their narrow practice, were become
Coz’ners at large: and only wanting some
House to set up, with him they here contract,
Each for a share, and all begin to act.
Much company they draw, and much abuse,
In casting figures, telling fortunes, news,
Selling of flies, flat bawdry, with the stone:
Till it, and they, and all in fume are gone.