On a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Francis Beckett relishes a classic city comedy by a contemporary of Shakespeare.
By Ben Jonson
Greed Is Good
This production of The Alchemist by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), currently running at the Swan Theatre in Statford-Upon-Avon, zips along nicely, even if it isn’t quite up to the National Theatre’s splendid 2006 rendering.
Yet it manages to find for us the fun that the original 1610 audience would have found in Ben Johnson’s satiric London tale of confidence tricksters and their prey.
Whereas the National Theatre offered the likes of Simon Russell Beale, the RSC gives us a solid, reliable and accomplished cast – no one great standout performance, but a talented troupe of actors who make us laugh at and care about the characters at the same time.
For me, the nearest to a standout performance is Mark Lockyer’s Subtle, a cynical, world-weary alchemist, bamboozling all around him and taking their money.
For others it might be Ken Nwosu as his collaborator Face, the manservant who grasps his chance when his master, Hywel Morgan's Lovewit, decides to find respite from the plague outside town.
Then again it could be Dol Common, played here by Siobhán McSweeney, delightfully and amusingly, as a podgy and cynical whore..
There are some fine cameo performances. Sir Epicure Mammon – Ben Johnson's names often describe his characters – is a greedy, priapic, self-indulgent upper class oaf, brought to bibulous life by a fine character actor, Ian Redford.
Timothy Speyer as Tribulation Wholesome (there, you know almost everything about him already), a pastor of Amsterdam. Driven out for his faith from his home city – as he never tires of telling anyone who comes within earshot – is all pious, self-righteous whingeing.
Listening to him, I understood something about religious persecution. For, when every sect is attacking the other, anyone might tend to be cynical about a man persecuted for his religion who, given the chance, would persecute in turn.
Director Polly Findlay’s production scores over the National in its minimalism. The National these days seems obsessed by complicated, massively expensive and, generally, entirely unnecessary sets, and technical tricks for their own sake. Here we have a table and chairs, and an uncomplicated, unchanging backcloth; simple, and all the better for it.
She also scores with her decision to cut twenty minutes off the play. People are often frightened of cutting classics like Johnson, but each generation requires things to happen faster than the last, and a twenty first century audience will not tolerate the length of speeches that a Jacobean audience would find normal.
Altogether this is a fine rendering of a play which manages to be funny and to tell us something uncomfortable about human greed, earning a green light from this reviewer.