The Alchemist @ Olivier, National Theatre, London

cast list
Simon Russell Beale
Alex Jennings
Lesley Manville
Ian Richardson

directed by
Nicholas Hytner
Although considered the greatest playwright of the age during his lifetime, Ben Jonson’s reputation has of course suffered in comparison with Shakespeare’s since then. Basing his characters on the four medieval ‘humours’ and a cynical view of mankind, rather than Shakespeare’s humanistic vision which created fully rounded individuals who were a mixture of good and bad, Jonson’s plays may seem far less engaging to modern audiences but the Manichean world of villains and victims he creates is full of extraordinary comic energy.

Nicholas Hytner’s entertaining modern-dress production of Jonson’s second great comedy The Alchemist – less frenetic than the version at the National ten years ago – does full justice to his inventive imagination, making his bawdy but erudite language surprisingly accessible and cleverly suggesting contemporary parallels. Part satire, part farce, there is real relish in the vices and follies to which human beings are capable of stooping.

The plot revolves around the ingenious ways in which three confidence tricksters fleece a succession of gulls by appealing to their baser natures. While his employer Lovewit has left London to escape the plague, Face joins forces with the pimp Subtle and whore Dol Common in using the house in Blackfriars for their scam. Face lures gullible and greedy clients there where Subtle poses as an alchemist on the verge of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, an elixir which can turn base metal into gold and grant eternal youth.

In return for a generous fee, a lawyer’s clerk is promised a meeting with the Queen of the Fairies who will guarantee him good fortune in gambling; a tobacconist wants feng shui advice to ensure his shop is profitable; an already wealthy knight is dazzled by the chimera of untold riches and a rejuvenated sex life; two puritanical Anabaptists hope to boost their sect’s power through material gains; and a snobbish man about town and his widowed sister aim to enhance their family position.

The great joy of the play is watching how the three con-artists have to change their personas and costumes with increasing speed in struggling to maintain their elaborate schemes as the various dupes sometimes turn up at the same time, before the master of the house returns. No one comes out well in Jonson’s expose of human infirmity: the villains are able to flourish not just through the naivety of their victims but because of the latter’s obsessive avarice and lust. In fact, if anything we warm to the former because of their quick-wittedness and creative entrepreneurial spirit – and indeed because they are actors putting on a thoroughly professional performance.

As Subtle, Alex Jennings is an amusingly consummate chameleon, changing from a sandal- and bead-wearing Californian hippy to a white-robed mystic and besuited Scottish accountant. He makes a great double act with Simon Russell Beale’s hilarious Face, who shifts shape from an urbane, blazer-clad captain to limping be-goggled German lab assistant and mild-mannered butler. Lesley Manville also impresses as the deliciously vulgar Dol Common who stops the two men from bickering by threatening to vent her fury on both of them.

Although Ian Richardson is a rather subdued Sir Epicure Mammon for someone who believes all their dreams are about to come true, Amit Shah makes a comically innocent Asian cornershop owner Abel Drugger, while Tristan Beint has fun with his failing-to-be-cool rapping and hand jiving Kastril and Elisabeth Dermot Walsh is his impressionable posh totty sister Dame Pliant. As Surly, the one person who is neither a crook nor a fool, Tim McMullan puts on a bravura macho Spanish guise in order to expose the fraudulent trio but no one will believe him – they prefer to live in their own fantasy worlds where self-deception walks hand in hand with deception.

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