Friday 16 September 2016

The Alchemist - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by Ben Jonson
Directed by Polly Findlay

Mark Lockyer

First performed in 1610, Ben Jonson's powerful and timeless satire of city life is presented here at its best, thanks to a flamboyant and utterly enjoyable RSC production.

The Alchemist has always been a vibrant tale about human miseries and weaknesses, with its promenade of highly iconic and recognisable characters. Polly Findlay's beautiful direction however adds something more to the story: an up-to-date twist and a sparkling syncopated rhythm.  The new prologue and script revisions by Stephen Jeffreys are fundamental in achieving that. The original version's sometimes wordy text, cut by one fifth here, is lighter and clearer. What is left is a magnificent play that, at its very core, proves capable of engaging a contemporary audience too.

The cut and thrust dialogue between the on and off sides of the stage starts from the very beginning with the sparkling use of the musical prologue: a complex twine of classical and cinematographic melodies cleverly arranged by composer Corin Buckeridge and sound designer Gregory Clarke.

The plot is well-known: during the plague of 1610 a mischievous trio formed by Face, Subtle and Dol Common take advantage of the temporary absence of the master of the house – the wealthy Lovewit – and use it as the headquarters of their dubious trade.

Subtle, playing the part of the Alchemist, arranges a series of swindles to the detriment of various greedy and foolish human beings: taking advantage of their vanities and very worldly desires he manages to help relieve them of their money. But in mad times it is all too easy for the trickster to become the tricked

The sharp, witty script is delivered impeccably by the three leads and this production's real strength lies in the energetic chemistry between them: like three separate elements they are the human embodiment of the perfect alchemic process. Mark Lockyer’s superb Subtle is all power and rush, like a rascally version of a grumpy Prospero, a masculine presence that reigns over the stage; Ken Nwosu’s Face is utterly convincing in its humanity, he is the “Servitore di due padroni” – the unfaithful servant who in the end proves his faith, while Siobhan McSweeny’s depiction of Dol Common is truly surprising – there is so much unsaid in her character, but nonetheless she is able to turn each silent look into an entire speech.

A saucy farce, slightly reminiscent of Blackadder, The RSC's Alchemist is pure gold and shouldn't be missed. Go and discover it for yourself!

Runs until 1st October
Reviewed by Simona Negretto
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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