The Alchemist

Published April 17, 2008

Purple smoke, explosions, a man in a tutu and a crazy Spaniard with extremely tight trousers were just some of the sights to behold on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre last night. Creating the madness in Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist are Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings, on stage together for the first time, directed by the National’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner. Caroline Bishop went to the first night…

Written during Plague times in early 17th century London, Jonson’s play follows the haywire plans of a trio of con artists – Subtle, Face and Doll Common – as they try to dupe an eclectic band of self-obsessed individuals out of their money by exploiting their dreams and desires.

In doing so, Russell Beale’s Face and Jennings’s Subtle don a variety of different disguises – Hytner’s modern dress production giving them the ability to do so – complete with comedy accents, depending on which gullible creature they are currently trying to con: Jennings is in turn an American hippie type in white kaftan and beads, a spiritualist who can see the future, and a Scottish academic; Russell Beale swaps between upper class, toupee-clad advisor, scruffy German sidekick and, when his master – whose house the pair have been using for their dodgy dealing – returns home early, prim and bespectacled manservant.

It is the colour and character of this pair in particular that give Jonson’s comedy the flair that it demands, though all members of the large cast contribute to the sense of craziness in Hytner’s fast-paced production. Ian Richardson, last seen in London in The Creeper, is a deliciously pompous and self-serving Sir Epicure Mammon, who naively lines the pockets of the dupes in the belief they can find the Philosopher’s Stone – his ‘wooing’ of Doll (Lesley Manville), the tarty prostitute in the guise of a rich widow, is disgustingly funny. The stream of greedy hopefuls knocking at the door is completed by Tristan Beint as the Tim-Nice-But-Dim angry boy Kastril, Bryan Dick as the innocent Dapper, Tim McMullan as Surly – whose turn as the libido-driven Spaniard is enacted with relish – Amit Shah as the earnest Drugger and Sam Spruell as Ananias.

As the various storylines pick up pace and become intertwined, the anti-heroes try to save their bacon with increasingly ridiculous schemes, while underneath the comedy lies the dark and distasteful flavour of Plague-ridden London, with its greedy, opportunistic inhabitants.

The Alchemist is part of the Travelex £10 season.

CB