The year is 1610 and the plague has hit London. Our affable trio who serve to conduct the subsequent nearly 3 hours, deliver a rollicking prologue in deftly rhyming couplets to set up the play. These three are the puppeteers, the fortunate unhappies, who capitalise on the chance of an absent master to turn a nobleman’s Blackfriars lodgings in to a house of ill repute. It’s an Elizabethan play and Polly Findlay has chosen to play it so, or so we think until the opening music starts and we hear the strains of Mission Impossible and Joplin’s piano rag interspersed with more traditional music on the lute and harpsichord – already all is not what it seems.
With a 20% cut to the text of the original play, this performance rattles along at break neck speed with barely a chance to catch its own breath. Doors open and close, characters leave by one door and appear from another, cellars explode and people get locked in the privy – there are all the hallmarks of cleverly constructed clear physical comedy. Often the laughs come from the physicality of acting rather than the nuanced exquisitely delivered suggestive language which occasionally feels a shame. The text is delivered with such ease that we are helped through the occasionally dense Jonsonian script and some lines even create their own modern meanings that Jonson could not have anticipated. This is the real Hustle. Crossed with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And perhaps a pinch of Ocean’s Eleven. With a crocodile centrepiece hanging from the ceiling – a must for any Elizabethan home makeover.
The play is such a success due to the strength of the three leads. Mark Lockyer and Ken Nwosu as Subtle, the self-made alchemist, and Face, the servant of the house in question, in particular, are a dastardly duo that you can’t help but love. The vignette style of the plot as they play a different character for each encounter with a hapless fool seeking fame, fortune and female company keeps it feeling fresh and frenetic. The moments where characters directly address the audience were somewhat lost to me sitting up in the gods (literally on the last row), but it was evident that this interaction and use of the audience as a stage space in the final scenes, was very engaging.
To close the play, Face’s direct address to the audience almost broke character – questioning whether they as actors had conned us the audience out of our money just as the play’s characters had their gullible victims. The cast took their curtain call in plain dress (Face indeed undressing as he performed his speech) as the set dismantled around them. An interesting device that left me wanting to explore more. All that glitters is not gold, they might say, except in this production where it truly sparkles.
The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson, directed by Polly Findlay for the RSC. The Barbican London. Until 2nd October 2016.