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The Alchemist (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

Polly Findlay directs Ben Jonson's satire

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Alchemy, that impenetrable blend of magic and quasi-science that had much of Jacobean England in its thrall, is also the stuff of great theatre. While Shakespeare seemed to ooze brilliance with every play he turned out, his contemporaries often had to work much harder for their desired effects.

For Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend and collaborator, arguably the closest he came to reaching that intangible pinnacle was his play about a supreme charlatan posing as the greatest alchemist of his age. Jonson's bang-up-to-date satire would not have been lost on his 1610 audience, and one of the most striking things about Polly Findlay's rumbustious new production for the RSC is how thoroughly resonant it remains more than 400 years on.

The trio of scammers at the heart of the mischievous comedy could almost have stepped out of television's Rogue Traders - with rogue here being used in the loveable, cheeky sense of those who gull arrogant fools who deserve to be duped. Using combinations of religious flattery, sexual temptation and even an early form of feng shui, they trick their clients into handing over cash. Even when they're unmasked, Jonson still has a few ingenious twists to keep the laughs coming and the audience wrong-footed.


Siobhan McSweeney, Ken Nwosu and Mark Lockyer make a wonderful triple-act as the duplicitous double-dealers. Nwosu in particular is gloriously likable as the butler Jeremy, who cashes in on his master's absence (having fled the plague-ridden city in fear of his life) to turn his empty house into a palace of perfidy.

Among their victims, Joshua McCord as the would-be dandy Dapper and Ian Redford as the over-indulgent Sir Epicure Mammon lead a veritable army of willing dupes, all too credible in their credulousness and led by their own foibles and follies to their individual fates.

Helen Goddard's classically simple set serves the action superbly, while composer Corin Buckeridge has enormous fun with his overture and underscore, quoting musical references from Mission Impossible to James Bond. Findlay's direction is fast and furious and this, together with Stephen Jeffreys's astute revision of the text and some light-footed playing by the frenetic company, keeps the performance racing along.

Jonson's language may not have quite the depth and poetry of his old friend's, but his mastery of comedy, structure and biting wit more than justify this strong revival, and its intriguing juxtaposition with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare's own Cymbeline in the summer repertoire helps to make this a production well worth staging.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

The Alchemist runs at the Barbican until 1 October.