Golden Oldie: Katherine Duncan-Jones on a Production of the Alchemist That Has the Midas Touch. (Theatre)
Duncan-Jones, Katherine, New Statesman (1996)
Ben Jonson's most inventive city comedy was written in the aftermath of London's severe plague outbreak in 1608-9, and during a time of frantic greed and ruthless social climbing. In the publicity for Present Moment's gloriously colourful and energetic production of The Alchemist, it is claimed that the play has been "transposed to mid-1980s Docklands when stock-market deregulation, soaring property prices and 'Greed is Good' reigned supreme". I was afraid that we might be encouraged to jeer too much at those amusingly bad old days, perhaps even being permitted collectively, from the comfortable high ground of new Labour's second term, to feel good -- something Jonson certainly never liked his audiences to do.
Fortunately, the publicity is misleading. The production is more complex than its write-up suggests, and much less overdetermined. Any 21st-century smugness we may bring with us to the Riverside Studios receives a wholesome battering in the course of the ensuing two hours. Aptly, given the company's name, Joss Bennathan's production turns out to be wholly of today, and its satire repeatedly bites home. Although its visual style alludes fitfully to the 1980s, the performance as a whole constantly reminds us how many of the crazes and "lifestyles" launched in the 1980s are now going stronger than ever, especially the ones that our churchgoing forebears would have labelled "superstitions": astrology, New Age therapy, Chinese medicine, style make-overs, "life coaching", feng shui, even witchcraft. All, in a truly Jonsonian manner, are fields that permit their less scrupulous practitioners to extract huge sums of money from eager clients -- what Jonson called "gulls", and we call "suckers". When the simpering Abe lDrugger(an irresistibly sweet performance by Ben Enwright) asks for help with the arrangement and "branding" of his tobacco shop to maximise profits, we are taken straight into the contemporary world of marketing and PR. There is also just as much interest today as there was in 1985 in the domestic doings of the rich and famous. …