THE ALCHEMIST
Birmingham Rep/Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 10 September, 1996

In one of his recent shows, Ken Campbell described Ben Jonson's "comedie" as lasting about three and a half hours, "and if you work your pants off you can get maybe 20 laughs." At first, Bill Alexander's production for Birmingham Rep and the National Theatre leads one to wonder whether perhaps old Ken was being a little uncharitable: Simon Callow, Tim Pigott-Smith and Josie Lawrence as the central trio of cozeners are all on good form, and the giggles flow relatively freely.

Alexander has set the action vaguely in "the future", giving William Dudley the scope for teetering, ragged Neverwhere-style designs, and allowing us to consider the urban chaos and cod-mysticism of the play in the light of a New Age dystopia rather than plague-ridden 17th-century London. Success in business or in gambling, and supreme voluptuous wealth, are as common desires today as in 1610, but the relocation seems to be primarily for purposes of vibrant staging rather than trenchant interpretation.

Pigott-Smith's Subtle, all hair extensions and rumpled self-importance, is more of a confederate than a rival to his fellow, the master of disguise Face. Simon Callow cuts loose as the fraudster-in-chief: as "Captain" Face he sports a swagger-stick, 'tache and Terry-Thomas drawl; as alchemical stoker Lungs he shambles around, hunched, emitting a Black Country accent through buck teeth; reverting to the persona of reliable Jeremy Butler upon the sudden return of the master of the house, he simply becomes Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs. Josie Lawrence, in particular, is made for exuberant pretences, whether as the Queen of Faery or a demure but unstable young creature the pity is that, as Doll Common, she is afforded so few opportunities for such play.

As the evening progresses, however (and events are taken at a lick to secure a comparatively sprightly 190-minute running time), it becomes apparent that the laughs are more often than not independent of the play. Jonson's unremittingly savage satire, and the cataract of arcane jargon in this particular work, render it more admired in theory than in practice. It is the very devil to make a production of The Alchemist as funny as one imagines it ought to be, and it succeeds largely by dint of actors working flat out to compensate for lines which seem magnificently mordant on the page but doggedly refuse to come alive.

This realisation settles in early in the second half, with the consequence that audience attention to the plot tails off just as it grows farcically complex. We revel in discrete moments rather than a sustained power either of individual performance or overall asperity. There are certainly enough such moments in Alexander's production, but squaring the circle between contemporary and Jonsonian sensibilities remains a tantalisingly elusive prospect.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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