26th September 16: You may not have heard of him but Ben Jonson is author of some of the most outrageous sitcoms of the decade. His hugely popular work is filled with colourful arrays of dodgy characters all out for themselves and getting themselves deeper and deeper into trouble with every twist and turn of the plot, heading inexorably towards their undoing as their plans get out of hand and riotous chaos ensues. Jonson is a master of witty one liners coupled with crazy plots and schemes that are doomed from the start to end in turmoil and disaster, with hilarious consequences.
The decade is of course the 1610s and Ben Jonson is a contemporary of William Shakespeare and one of the most successful and well known satirical playwrights of the 17th century. Even today his plays rank highly in the echelons of comedy and easily stand head to head with modern day classics such as Faulty Towers, Blackadder or Mrs Brown’s Boys.
The first thing you cannot fail to notice in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s delightful production of The Alchemist at the Barbican Theatre is the 9ft long crocodile hanging down from the ceiling of the theatre, which is accompanied by theme tunes from James Bond, The Italian Job and the first time I have ever heard (and am likely to hear) the theme from The A-Team played on the harpsichord. Crocodiles and alligators were considered to be personification of the devil and to have mystical properties and were often found in an alchemist’s laboratory. In Jonson’s play the crocodile is also to be used by the main protagonists as a hiding place to store their ill gotten gains.
The play begins with an outbreak of plague prompting a gentleman by the name of Lovewit to flee his Blackfriars residence and head for the country, leaving his trusted butler Jeremy in charge. No sooner has he departed when Jeremy assumes an alternative identity ‘Captain Face’ and enlists the help of accomplices Subtle, a fellow conman and local prostitute Dol Common. The three of them waste no time getting to work relieving various wealthy and gullible clients of their riches. Ken Nwosu Mark Lockyer and Siobhan McSweeny form a brilliant trio as Face, Subtle and Dol serving as the play’s foundation and keeping the action fast and furious with the interplay between their characters and with the other characters of the play.
The trio’s victims include Dapper, a Lawyer’s clerk who begs Subtle to use his sorcery to summon the spirits to help him improve his gambling fortunes, and who is subsequently tricked into undergoing humiliating rituals in order to win favour with The Queen Of The Fairies, Abel Drugger the tobacconist who wishes to grow his business with the help of Subtle’s mystical powers, a brotherhood of anabaptist priests and Sir Epicure Mammon, in search of The Philosopher’s Stone which will turn base metals into gold and bring him untold material riches and spiritual wealth. Ian Redford casts a wonderfully bold Sir Epicure Mammon and delivers and fabulous monologue in his list of all the fortunes the Philosopher’s Stone will bring him. Sir Epicure Mammon’s companion, Surly is not convinced however. He believes that the three of them are thieves running a bawdy house.
Meanwhile rich young widow Dame Pliant and her brother Kastril arrive in London. Face and Subtle are quarrelling over who should have the widow when Surly arrives, disguised as a Spanish nobleman, intent on uncovering their nefarious activities. Face and Subtle believe he has come looking for a prostitute and as Dol is occupied elsewhere they conspire to set him up with the widow.
At the height of all this commotion the master of the house returns home unexpectedly. Lovewit’s neighbours tell him of all the goings on, but Face, now transformed back into loyal butler Jeremy denies all knowledge of such misdemeanours. Just as he thinks he’s got away with the deceit the house is besieged by all of the trio’s angry victims,. Jeremy can no longer maintain his story so in order to extricate himself from this predicament he begs for pardon and offers Lovewit all of the proceeds and the hand in marriage of a rich widow. When Subtle and Dol return for their share of the takings Jeremy tells them he has confessed all and that the police are on their way, at which Subtle and Dol are persuaded to flee empty handed.
The play ends with Lovewit marrying Dame Pliant, forgiving Jeremy and praising his resourcefulness but leaving him with only a token by way of material reward. Jeremy/Face is left to start anew – selling theatre tickets for the play.
All in all, a fantastic and very funny play brilliantly performed.
The Alchemist is showing at The Barbican until 1st October. If you get a chance, go and see it and you will be roaring with laughter.