FringeReview UK 2016
The original Swan production designed by Helen Goddard boasting candlelight and an obsidian glitter, transfers to the Barbican without all that stage’s intimate busy-ness and slapstick: unlike the fit of its perfect dark-magic companion piece, Doctor Faustus. Polly Findlay’s chosen to set this production of Jonson’s The Alchemist in its original 1610 state, though Stephen Jeffreys has added a neat prologue to set the scene and excised nearly 20% of its text so we’re left with the original hectic through the blood of three con-artists.
Polly Findlay’s chosen to set this production of Jonson’s The Alchemist in its original 1610 state, though Stephen Jeffreys has added a neat prologue to set the scene and excised nearly 20% of its text – often added as later baggage by Jonson – so we’re left with the original hectic through the blood of three con-artists, chief of whom Jeremy the trusted butler makes use of his master’s house when the latter rushes to escape the plague. The original Swan production designed by Helen Goddard boasting candlelight and an obsidian glitter, transfers to the Barbican without all that stage’s intimate busy-ness and slapstick: unlike the fit of its perfect dark-magic companion piece, Doctor Faustus, perhaps the Barbican’s prosc-arch isn’t as much fun for this ensemble. That said, the second half dissolves this impression.
Corin Buckeridge’s consummately witty score opens slightly out of period in Purcell’s Dido’s Lament (a reference to the Plague) then zips through Mission Impossible, The Sting, The Italian Job. You’d think it’d then give on to 2016, but no, the period’s left to speak for itself.
The opening pitches the falling-out of Ken Nwosu’s Jeremy, now Face, with Mark Lockyer’s Subtle, the faux-alchemist of the title who thinks he’s a cut above and Siobhan McSweeney’s peacemaking quick-witted Dol Common, both brought in to attract gullible folk even greedier than themselves and fleece them of anything golden.
The pomp and start Sir Epicure Mammon – Ian Redford plays it straighter than some but with a pitch of dark luxuriance – is given the most voluptuous prose to project his Croesus-like wealth; and he’s hardly threadbare now. To have his pillows ‘blown not stuff’d’ and to walk ‘naked among my succubi’ is surely the richest verse Jonson ever wrote, and as he’d add the most preposterous. Sir Epicure’s even persuaded to part with pots and pans to a dubious cellarage, all fated for a sulphurous blast of judgement from the pit, aided by a little gunpowder trail.
Abel Drugger’s modest desires seem winsome in comparison, and you’d not know this was Garrick’s favourite Jonson part, Richard Leeming making a hesitant precise speaker as if every word were a careful scribing out of a label on one of his positions. Joshua McCord’s Dapper, promise a vision of fairies, gets a substantially suspended Doll after being locked in the privy, and so on.
Apples of discord you feel with Locker and Nwosu would come anyway, and Rosa Robson’s teenage widow Dame Pliant meant for Drugger, rolls modestly in hotly pursued by the parody of the moment, gilt-haired Tom McCall, as Kastril her furioso brother always on point of a duel over her honour, and clearly as able to run from it more credibly than Sir Andrew Aguecheek. His more frequent appearances ramp up the energy as the frantic returns on scams keep concatanating more frequently, collide and close in. And Timothy Speyer’s saturnine Tribulation Wholesome’s waiting to prove them all knaves, though he’s hard to it in a garish Spanish suit.
Certainly the greatest brio glisters in the last forty or so minutes. It’s a wonder Hywel Morgan’s Lovewit when he finally returns to his home, is able to profit so well in every sense from this mayhem, and the fate of the rogues isn’t at all predictable. Morgan commands affably with steel and an incredible moral blankness over some issues and a keen sense of retribution in others – and you won’t predict where.
Nwosu’s the stand-out of the evening though, and begins one of the wittier deconstructions and epilogues we’ve seen at the RSC, who’ve made a speciality of it. If the RSC keep up with their Jonson, productions like these go 95% of the way to creating a relish for him.