Keeping the name and reputation of Ben Jonson alive is sometimes hard work, even in his best plays. The RSC has shown only sporadic interest in fulfilling their obligation to Shakespeare’s only rival (oh, all right, Webster and Middleton must rate a good shout, but old Ben speaks so directly to us, even now, don’t you think?), and not always successfully, so it may be the National’s job to fill the breach.
This they do, to a certain extent, in Nicholas Hytner’s modern dress revival of The Alchemist in the Olivier, part of the admirable Travelex £10 ticket season. But the fabulous scam of the con artist, pimp and prostitute turning an absentee employer’s house into an emporium of fantastical rip-offs lacks the crucial, killing Jonsonian ingredient of unbridled glee. I loved the evening but I had the odd sensation of being on my own, rubbing up against my lamp of enthusiasm for Jonson.
There is something odd, for a start, with Mark Thompson’s design of modern staircases on a revolving interior being so distant from, and unrelated to, the jazz doodlings of David Shrubsole’s quintet in the balcony. And the much anticipated performances of Alex Jennings as the spurious alchemist, Subtle, and Simon Russell Beale as the chameleon housekeeper Face, are brilliant, but strenuous, exercises in “character.”
I may just be admitting the perennial problem of not enjoying Jonson as much as I always want to. Only Ian Richardson’s superbly phrased and orotund Sir Epicure Mammon - what a joy to see this remarkable actor, the greatest voice in the RSC archive, in his sleek dotage! – compels complete relaxation in the satirical and exotic idioms of the play.
The unobtainable goal is the Philosopher’s Stone, the elixir that turns base metal to gold, disease to wellbeing, old age to youth, like the magic waters in the medieval paintings. Jennings as Subtle adopts an overriding, very funny West Coast hippie persona, while Russell Beale’s Face is a monstrous Biggles figure in myopic goggles, helmet and flapping leather plus fours. Their moments of relapse to “themselves” are not as revealing, or as dangerous, as they should be, perhaps. But their appetite for the fray, the quick-change artistry, the mildewed charade, is never in doubt.
Lesley Manville as Doll Common, “their colleague” is consistently tarty, however; she creates a real bridge, or bond, between the rascals when she has the lines to do so. And there are really fine contributions from Tristan Beint as the pent-up angry boy, Kastril, and Ian Barritt with a Bobby Charlton combed-across hairstyle as that monument to suburban religious hypocrisy and flim-flam, Tribulation Wholesome.
The return of the house-owner, Lovewit (John Burgess), is staged with real panache, and Russell Beale, like Ian McKellen years ago at the RSC, finds a bitter, sardonic centre to his true identity as the servant Jeremy, a fustian Malvolio who has sought refuge from his role in the play’s illegal shenanigans. The fleecing of Abel Drugger (Amit Shah), the tobacconist who is building a new shop at the corner of the street, is particularly vicious, and the entrapment of Dapper the clerk (Bryan Dick) another example of shady manipulation that is all too recognisable.