In search of elusive gold

Dapper (Sarah Jane-Lee) and shopkeeper Drugger (Alan Francis) . Picture: Robert Day

The Alchemist

Coventry Belgrade B2

****

PAUL Burbridge’s new production of Ben Jonson’s most admired – and, in its amiable Jacobean way, notorious – play The Alchemist is just the latest in the flood of classic productions Hamish Glen has directed or coproduced with his Belgrade Theatre company. 

Jonson’s off-stage career was almost as frenetic as Christopher Marlowe’s, though lacked the same grisly ending. Instead, he continued after The Alchemist (1610), which starred Richard Burbage, then in his early 40s, as the wily Subtle, via the almost as successful The Devil is an Ass (1616) to produce further plays and the courtly Masques for which he was equally celebrated, intermittently, into the 1630s; buoyed up by an annuity from James I which made him effectively the first Poet Laureate (a Master of the King’s Musick followed under Charles I).

In Elizabeth I’s last year Jonson was charged with murder, imprisoned and nearly lost his life; a collaborative play, Eastward Hoe, nearly led to his disfigurement (a Tudor-Jacobean speciality) for insulting the Scots, an offence then verging on blasphemy.   

But if Shakespeare’s plays – The Alchemist coincided with the run of the bard’s great last dramas - address universal themes of loss, betrayal, jealousy, power-craze, ruthlessness, pride, ambition, Jonson prefers to look at the ubiquity of corruption and social presumption in the cities of his day – not unrelated issues, but more temporal.

Greed is rife: and it is this covetousness which brings several of The Alchemist’s characters – Pliant, Dapper, Drugger, very different characters and spanning the social scale – to a sorry outcome.

Subtle, or, in this case, not, (Tom Peters), Doll Common (Zannah Hodson) and Face (Andrew Harrison)

The universality Jonson looks at is the universality of overweening temptation and error. The Alchemist sits alongside Hogarth and Rowlandson – in our own day, Gerald Scarfe - and in literature John Aubrey, among the works of the great caricaturists.

Burbridge’s energetic cast, offset by the glaring scarlets of Sean Cavanagh’s set and seating, is an able one. Ten main characters feature: three are crooks, six are gullibles and one (Sir Pertinax Surly, the pleasingly characterful Barrett Robertson, home-grown at the Belgrade) is as it were the viewer, perhaps the chastened audience, looking in distrustfully and seeing chicanery for what it is.

Tom Peters, a National Theatre player not least, heads the monstrous racket – metal-dabblers who can supposedly conjure up gold (and silver), but with an eye to every kind of money-grabbing wheeze that springs to mind. The production starts with violence – a domestic row, effectively – and takes some time to calm down and ease the pace. Not all the script gets across, though much of it is as obtuse and arcane as anything in Jonson’s output (Bartholomew Fair and The Silent Woman are arguably easier fare). Ever-zestful in his chosen cozening trade, Peters dons crazy, dressing-up box outfits to perform his various bits of sly buffoonery (comedy is much to the fore; the satire follows).

His aide-de-camp (literally at the end, as servant Jeremy) is Andrew Harrison, who turns Face into a mirthful revue of sleek disguises – sea captain, strange Jewish-tinged necromancer, bustling factotum, arm-twisting heavy – offsetting his own breezy, rumbustious cockney self. It’s a reading that is never less than assured, and invariably commands the stage. Zannah Hodson abets as Doll Common, living up to her name, with a nasty side, open all hours and never averse to a bit of nooky.

The ludicrous victims come one by one to the plonk of an imperious two-tone doorbell. Dapper, the legal eagle with a gambling lust, and the innocent, blissfully stupid Lady Pliant, who will end up unexpectedly well-off, are played by Sarah-Jane-Lee, the first eagerly bizarre, the latter wanly puzzled but easily mesmerised – quite fun. Old Vic and Guildhall product Kolade Agboke all but loses his trousers late on, in a comic amorous mixup preferable to his bombastice first scene. John Holden-White plays the rural simpleton Kastril, as vulnerable to the capital’s dazzle as his suburban equals.

Sir Epicure Mammon (Kolade Agboke) and Doll Common (Zannah Hodson)

I didn’t enjoy all of this. Shifting the location to Coventry by slipping in a few feeble locational witticisms (they got laughs; surely hollow ones) struck me as a pointless patronising of the audience. If you’re going to do that, better research this historic city’s deeper recesses than slapping in tee-hees about Berkswell and Daventry, Godiva, Hillfields and Pool Meadow.

Sometimes I didn’t enjoy the pace, perhaps partly dictated by sheer length (2 hours 47m). The language is as oblique in places as Lear’s Fool. Too much was rushed early on; a Nicholas Hytner or Simon McBurney would have allowed this play to breathe. And that was where the soliloquies scored – for Face, Doll, even Sir Epicure Mammon. They all shone out. 

But what I did enjoy was Alan Francis, credited as a ‘Scottish actor and comedian’ – and my, was he – in the double role of Abel Drugger – a hapless small shopkeeper and honest good soul but with aspirations above his station – and Ananias, a hot-headed proto-Anabaptist, one of the wider ‘whole company of the separation’ that hived off with the Reformation.

This latter is a character beautifully drawn, both by Jonson and in Burbridge’s modified version, and for him (as a well-rehearsed enemy of the theatre, equivocating between ‘coining’ and ‘casting’ where Scripture can be twisted into mammon) is reserved the bitterest venom of all. The caricature is masterly, and Francis, with staring eyes as electrifying as Robert Newton or Hugh Griffith, is a joy to behold. He is also, with Robertson’s Surly (especially in mock-Spanish) the most lucid speaker of all. To 22-02-14.

Roderic Dunnett 

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