The National Strikes Gold: Nicholas Hytner Brings Ben Jonson's London Bang Up to Date in a Fine Staging
Millard, Rosie, New Statesman (1996)
Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Nicholas Hytner's production of The Alchemist is a delight. Ben Jonson's 1610 farce of scams and trickery in Jacobean London has been triumphantly updated by the National Theatre into a riotous satire set in modern-day London, involving born-again Christians, wannabe rappers, posh birds, American self-help merchants and all the other ragtag and bobtail that thrives so exuberantly in the capital. Hytner has achieved a convincing modernity not by resorting to weary tropes such as iPods, but by drawing out resounding parallels between life 400 years ago, and now.
The comedy centres on a triumvirate of con artists--Subtle, the alchemist who tricks people into thinking he can turn their pots and pans to gold; Face, who goes and finds the gullible; and Dol Common, who keeps the whole show on the road and helps out when there's a bit of seduction necessary. Face's day job is as butler to Lovewit, a respectable London gentleman, who has left the city for fear of catching the plague. So the three tricksters have the perfect venue. They move into Lovewit's home in Blackfriars and transform it into a house of games. Mark Thompson's set, a cross-section of a gentrified Georgian house, is the ideal platform. Gentrified at the front, seedy at the back, it rotates, and as the action moves around the house, so do we.
It's difficult to know who the star of The Alchemist is, but Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, as Subtle and Face, respectively, have huge command of the stage and pass the baton generously between each other. Russell Beale grabs the tricky Jacobean text (there have been only a few minor rewrites) and wrestles it into comprehension. Meanwhile, Jennings dives into a dizzying array of amusing personages: a white-robed mystic, an American feng shui expert, a Scotsman in tweed, each more convincing than the last. As Subtle and Face take more and more money from an ever-growing queue of fools and the action begins to whirl, Jennings and Russell Beale chop and change accent, costume and style without resorting to cliche. Dol Common (Lesley Manville) is their perfect foil, provocative and curious, insisting on an equal stake in the whole scam.
The Alchemist takes time to set out its stall before Jonson lights the touchpaper. …