The Alchemist

Ben Jonson
The Rose Playhouse Bankside

Mercurius: The Alchemist

“You may come to end the remnant of your days in loathsome prison by speaking of it.”

So the bored prostitute Doll Common warns the florid Sir Epicure Mammon in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. Yet, the Elizabethans were obsessed with the search for the Philosopher’s Stone by which base metals could be turned into gold—and which, magic merging with medicine, they believed might cure all manner of human ills, prolong life and make the old once more young. Even Queen Elizabeth had her own trusted alchemist, Dr John Dee, whom she consulted on astrological and scientific matters.

Jonson’s play is a masterful satire which lampoons naivety, avarice and superstition. Set in a plague-ridden London, it tells of the wily get-rich-quick scam of three undesirables. Two charlatans, Face and Subtle, aided by Dol, take advantage of the absence of the master of the house, Lovewit, and—here, courtesy of some red silk drapes—transform his Blackfriars dining room into a den of the black arts.

There these pseudo-scientists ‘toil’—mixing phials and potions, poring over books of mystic lore—and welcome the inevitable stream of dupes who are motivated by greed and ripe for humiliation.

Where better to perform Jonson’s tale of guile and gullibility than the Rose Theatre Bankside, where the playwright’s own career began? The claustrophobic intensity conjured by the single-room set, and our proximity to the players, confirms our complicity. For, if we are tempted to sneer at the foolish fantasising of those in search of the Elixir Vitae, then we only have to remember present-day Ponzi schemes and phishing cons for the smile to fade.

There is little ‘development’ as such, as the tricksters repeat their duplicities on the beguiled gulls. Director Jenny Eastop uses the venue effectively, though, and we espy potential sources of profit—and, later, the returning Lovewit—on their way to promises which turn to penury. The red rope lights which indicate the position of the original Rose’s pit and stages form an ensnaring spider’s web.

Much rests on the alacrity and bite of the exchanges between the dastardly duo, and Peter Wicks’s Face and Benjamin Garrison’s Subtle form an ill-matched yet complementary pair of conspirators whose snappish verbal conflicts threaten to spill into physical brawls and require the constant intervention of Beth Eyre’s exasperated, pragmatic Dol.

Garrison’s thin side-burns are as sharp as his sneer of contempt. He exudes the Alchemist’s mumbo-jumbo with glib authority and delights in dandifying, sporting a Wildean lilac smoking-jacket with style, and donning a horoscope-embossed cape—an apt image, for astrology and alchemy were twin sides of the Elizabethan coin.

Peter Wicks’s Face in an opportunistic shark, darting through a series of bravura quick-changes: red gauntlet gloves, an eye-patch, gold-rimmed goggles worthy of E T A Hoffmann’s Coppelius effect versatile transformations. Face is bold and resourceful, and has the stamina to keep up the game when Subtle almost succumbs to the burden of sustaining the impersonation.

The pair are malicious and, at times, savage—one dupe, the gamester Dapper (Monty d’Inverno), is blindfolded and locked in a cupboard—but their chicanery is made palatable by the comic hubbub created by the hoaxes. And, after all, they are just turning the rough opportunities of life into good fortune. As Face tells Dol, they are “the few that had entrench'd themselves safe, by their discipline, against a world”. The take pride in their skill as swindlers: Subtle gloats, unctuously, “O, but to have gull’d him had been a mastery”.

Their victims are variations on a theme: greed. They share potent imaginative gifts but are distinguished by their habits of speech.

As Sir Epicure Mammon—for whom Subtle has prepared “the magisterium, our great work, the stone”—Jeremy Booth fabricates a brave new world, ‘Novo Orbe’, in which he and his friends will ‘Be rich!’ Like an over-excited child who, cautiously at first, and later luxuriously, dares to dream, Mammon declaims his fantastical ambitions in soaring cadences and opulent imagery. When his servant, Pertinax Surly, suggests that he is rich already, Mammon’s imagination really takes flight: his youth shall be restored, he shall be like an eagle, ‘get sons and daughters, young giants… become stout Marses, and beget young Cupids’.

Alec Bennie’s sceptical Surly lives up to his name: he is less the voice of moral reason and more a mean-spirited spoilsport. Charlie Ryall deftly etches the characters of the droopy Dame Pliant and the angrily gesticulating Anabaptist deacon, Ananias. Clark Alexander neatly reveals the lusty appetite of the tobacconist, Abel Drugger, who, despite his apparent innocence cannot conceal his desire for a rich young widow.

Most Elizabethan ‘alchemists’ died in poverty and misery: the philosopher’s stone brought few riches. And, much of the tension of the play arises from the inevitable return of Lovewit and the unavoidable unmasking of the conmen. Dol’s urgent peering through the window, the hip-hop poundings which intercut the short episodes, and the incessant knockings at the door—potentially a source of profit but possibly an agent of exposure—confirm that the co-conspirators are perched on a knife-edge between prosperity and discovery.

The end is swift. Alexander’s Lovewit returns and reality is reinstated: the silk drapes and ampoules are hastily snatched and stuffed into a chest—a sort of dressing-up box. Indeed, Eastop might have made more of the criminal pair’s love of role-playing. After all, Shakespeare’s Timon insults the Poet, “Hence! You are an alchemist, make gold of that”, his scornful words reminding us—as Jonson does—of the ultimate, self-conscious artifice: the theatre.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour

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