Salisbury Playhouse
Opened 7 May, 1998

Alchemy: the secret of transmuting base metal into gold to be believed literally, or as a metaphor for the elevation of human consciousness, or both? Stephen Lowe opts for both, or rather his protagonists do. For The Alchemical Wedding concerns the exile in Bohemia of Elizabethan astrologer-mystic Dr John Dee and his colleague, the medium and petty criminal Edward Kelly (or Kelley), labouring at once to fill the coffers of Rudolf II and to follow the angelic instructions transmitted through Kelly. In the course of his research, Lowe believes he has uncovered a human story hitherto unnoticed by scholars of occultism: to wit, that Kelly claimed his angelic instructress had commanded them to engage in a spot of mystical wife-swapping.

If this is indeed the case, it may explain certain historical mysteries surrounding the Dees' return to England in 1588, and Lowe weaves together the human and grand-historical dimensions to this end. However, his interest in the personal and interpersonal elements of the story is overshadowed by the supernaturalism; it is easy enough for us to believe that Kelly has his own base motives for "passing on" such "messages", but Dee's sincere mystical fervour carries us into a different space, in which the divine and the metaphysical threaten to edge out the simple facts about his marriage to Jane. Stuart David Nunn's vast abstruse instrument of a set design is truly impressive, but similarly does little to emphasise the worldly tensions amongst and between the two couples.

Under Jonathan Church's aware direction, William Hoyland's Dr. Dee is an upright man whose zeal gets the better of his sensibility; Alexandra Mathie brings her characteristic core of granite strength to Jane Dee; Antony Byrne creates a Kelly who, in turn, gives his all to his performances of angelic or demonic rapture, and Siri O'Neal's Joan Kelly is the least able manipulator of the quartet. But as several lexicons of language and ideas collide, interlock and slip over one another, Lowe's intended heart of the story gets lost. I overheard the woman behind me describe the play to her companion as "very ambitious", with the clear though unspoken meaning that it does not succeed. One cannot hope to be more succinct than this.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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