Saturday 21 March 2009

On The Alchemist

When Ben Jonson's 'The Alchemist' was first performed in 1610 the most powerful man in Europe, the Emperor Rudolf II, maintained a court of artists, astrologers and alchemists at his palace in Prague.  This great satire on greed, gullibility and our endless pursuit of folly was aimed at a far from marginal target.  As modern parallels scream out at us it's worth remembering that 'serious' people from Thomas Aquinas to Isaac Newton were alchemists, and that the folly of which Jonson writes is that of societies who are willing to subscribe to promises of instant gratification rather than the isolated exploits of charlatans and fool.  The Hedge Fund might be our modern Philosopher's Stone.

Bell Shakespeare's production at the Opera House (a partnership with the Queensland Theatre Company) gives vivid life to Jonson's bilious observation and reminds us that his characters live on, with and in us.

A comedy of appearances, where the chief conspirators Subtle and Face, appear in the guises best calculated to gull their prey, is aided by eclectic and evocative costume design.  The look is very much actor's dress up box but each character touching on a historical model, an Amish preacher, a pantomime hidalgo in idolatrous trousers, a slatternly Amy Winehouse and a hip hop pimp.  The overall effect both signals the particular type of folly each is identified with and allows the play to hover between periods, the farce is made universal.  All of this takes place before a long mirrored wall, reminding us that this is a comedy of vanity and that the audience is reflected from the stage.  Jonson might have relished the wicked conceit.

In belting out of the blocks the play initially stumbles over its own pace, opening on row between the three conspirators Subtle, the alchemist, Dol Common a hooker and Face, the housekeeper whose master's home the action takes place,  clarity is lost for the sake of energy and it's only once the gullible clients begin to arrive that we get to hear the actors fully relish Jonson's punning demotic dialogue.

Patrick Dickson, as Subtle, and Andrew Tighe, as Face, are the omnipresent amoral heart of the piece and give finely tuned and rhythmic performances that hold together the frentic narrative.  Subtle is a rather dog eared sort of guru his otherworldliness part of his promise to the greedy.  Face is the robust procurer of the pair, his is the more worldly role, he understands vice in himself and others and his leering and insinuating helps to promise each new fool ever more and lure them into the trap.  Dickson and Tighe manage beautifully paced performances, a slow interlude here gives greater impact to screwball face there, and they clearly enjoy Jonson's language.

The wonderfully named Sir Epicure Mammon (performed by David Whitney as a Regency recreation of Monty Python's Monsieur Creosote) steals scene after scene, which is only proper after all this is a play about avarice and lust as much as it is about those who profit from them.  He is just one a group of smart characterisations that make the play a pleasure.  Dol Common, played by Georgina Symes, is the one disappointment, all strutting and gum chewing the caricature adds little to the mix where something a little less predictable might have worked better.  However overall the casting and playing also easily evokes the messy claustrophobia of the Jacobean metropolis where all this vice seems entirely probable.   

The Alchemist is beautifully done and just about gets away with running without an interval, if that was a directorial decision to maintain the pace it asks even more of the audience's energy than that of the actors.  Jonson wrote universal satire, and it's enormously good judgement on the part of Bell to avoid banal contemporary references.  The company invests the text with an enormous energy and makes it a modern amorality tale, where we would do well to remember that we are the subject.

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