As any good A-level English student knows, Ben Jonson was the master of the dramatic unities of time, place and action. He is also the master of farce and – as you will discover at the RSC this September – the perfect and unexpected fart joke.
Despite being first performed in 1610, playwright Stephen Jeffery and director Polly Findlay have conspired to adapt The Alchemist, shorten it by 4,000 words (it's still 2 hours 30 minutes) and shine it up, until it has the easy humour and slapstick brilliance of a contemporary West End farce. Think A Comedy About a Bank Robbery or The Play that Went Wrong but with ruffs. Such an achievement is no mean feat when you're dealing with the language of Shakespeare.
In this Tudor comedy, London is hit by an outbreak of the plague. The wealthy Lovewit flees London and escapes to the country, leaving his townhouse in the hands of his trusted butler, Jeremy. No sooner has his master left the city, than Jeremy begins turning the house into a festering cesspit of criminal activity alongside fellow conman Subtle and prostitute Doll Common, to trick and rip-off half of London with promises of elixirs and/or witchcraft and/or excellent marriages.
The doorbell rings incessantly with a stream of unfortunate victims who lap up the lies and stories spun almost at random by the tricksters in various garbs and accents. Soon, handling all the comings and goings of the customers, whilst slipping in and out of differing disguises, becomes almost impossible to manage. The wicked trio begin to make mistakes and then – before they know it – they receive one very unwelcome visitor indeed.
Face (Ken Nwosu) and Subtle (Mark Lockyer) handle the ensuing madness all around them with high-energy, gesticulating and spitting out the tangled plots and schemes so that what appears to be impenetrable ancient language is as as easy to understand.
The relationship between the two male protagonists is tense at all times: neither trusts the other, but both must come together to exploit the unhappy customers in their turn. Doll (Siobhan McSweeny) is also an excellent villain, jumping between three female stereotypes (innocent virgin, magical fairy and of course prostitute) to see London out of pocket.
But it is the flurry of customers – each desperate, vain, stupid and deluded in their own unique ways – that make watching this such a joy. The weak-chinned drugger (Richard Leeming) shakes and wobbles like a leaf, the mad rich brother (Tom McCall) raws around the stage like a bull and the tempestuous priest (John Cummins) pushes Subtle and Face right to the edge of their lies.
No prior understanding of the play is needed. And it's a joy to watch a play 400 years old and laugh until your stomach hurts.
|What||The Alchemist, RSC review|
Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP
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07 Sep 16 – 01 Oct 16, 7:00 PM – 9:30 PM
|Price||£15 - £45|
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