As long as people – either villainous or vain – still dream of getting rich quick there will always be scams. In Ben Jonson’s riotous city comedy of 1610 the scam revolves around alchemy, or the turning of base metal into gold. Subverting the experiment, The Alchemist shows how three con-artists fleece a variety of victims by playing on their base desires to line their own pockets with money.
After his master has left London for his country home to escape the plague, Jeremy, now called Face, conspires with the crook Subtle and prostitute Dol Common to turn the house in Blackfriars into a criminal den. Face then lures gullible and greedy clients to where Subtle poses as an alchemist on the verge of discovering the philosopher’s stone to produce gold, as well as an elixir granting eternal youth.
In return for a fat fee upfront, a lawyer’s clerk is promised a meeting with the Queen of the Fairies who will guarantee him good fortune in gambling; a tobacconist wants feng shui advice to ensure his new shop is profitable; an already prosperous knight is dazzled by the chimera of untold riches and a rejuvenated sex life; an Anabaptist hopes to boost his spiritual sect’s material power; and a young gun with more wealth than wit wants to transmute himself into a ‘gallant’.
Jonson’s satire is so broad here that it tends towards farce, as the costume-changing fraudsters fall out under the pressure of ripping off their marks as much as possible before their scheme is blown. And with Stephen Jeffreys having cut almost 20 per cent of the text for this RSC production – preserving Jonson’s bawdy but erudite language while streamlining the plot – the laughs come thick and fast if not necessarily that subtly.
The result is morally ambivalent as we are tempted to sympathise with the con-artists for their entrepreneurial creativity in taking advantage of people whose delusional desires turn them into victims of self-deception as much as deception. The tricksters seem like actors putting on a slickly professional performance of make-believe for willing accomplices.
Director Polly Findlay injects her period revival with a racy modern vibe in an entertaining show that sometimes softens the edge of Jonson’s cruel humour. Designer Helen Goddard’s galleried townhouse has not just candelabra suspended but the cast of a crocodile (apparently sometimes used by alchemists in their laboratories, but here also signifying predatory instincts), which is regularly lowered by rope for ill-gotten gains to be hidden behind its enormous teeth.
Ken Nwosu gives Face/Jeremy a smoothly charming veneer that masks a quick-thinking deviousness. Mark Lockyer is very funny as an irascible Subtle full of outlandish gestures. Siobhan McSweeney’s forceful Dol Common knows how to get what she wants. Joshua McCord’s Dapper is a dandyish dupe; Richard Leeming a sweetly credulous Abel Drugger; Ian Redford the absurdly obsessive fantasist Sir Epicure Mammon; John Cummins a passive-aggressive Ananias; and as ‘angry boy’ Kastril Tom McCall flies all over the place in a display of ludicrously bellicose posturing.
In a short added epilogue, Face suggests that the audience have given away their cash on tickets and colluded in this theatrical alchemy put on by the company, before the set starts to be dismantled and the cast return for applause in everyday clothes. But unlike the patsies in the play, we don’t feel short-changed.
The Alchemist is on at the Barbican until 1st October 2016. Click here for more details.