By Ben Jonson Directed by Danny Wainwright Presented by Let Them Call It Mischief at the White Bear on 5 April 2012
When gentleman Lovewit is forced to flee his London dwelling, conmen Face and Subtle set up shop. Jonson’s acerbic satire on human folly, greed, and vanity sees a succession of fools and fops hoodwinked by the work of our (anti-)heroes. Their victims come seeking the elixirs and potions for sexual conquests, endless riches and eternal youth.
Let Them Call It Mischief have located The Alchemist in Victorian London, where a sense of grime and intrigue is intertwined with elements of the vaudeville and music hall. With original music from composer Jenny Green and innovative design by Ele Slade, expect to be surprised and entertained in equal measure.
Superb! The opening fairground or music hall tune sets the showtime tone; the green-inset pannelled wall with its multiple hatches of various sizes confounds us with complexity and intrigues us with what lies hidden beyond. Ed Cartwright is the tall, slender Subtle; Danny Wainwright stood in as the shorter, stockier Face; Stephanie Hampton completes the trio as Dol Common. These parts are only the beginning, of course, as each in turn takes on other roles: Subtle becomes a cunning man, the Alchemist, with a flowing green velvet robe and magician’s hat to match; Face is Lovewit’s Housekeeper, who transforms into Subtle’s Quasimodo-style assistant, squinting with stick-on sideburns and bushy moustache; Dol becomes their glamorous Colleague, red lips and hair, a beauty spot, and capable of striking a coquettish pose more certain to melt men’s hearts than any of the fiery alchemical experiments attempted in the basement are to generate even a grain of gold in the crucible.
Their business is gulling the rich, and they do it very well. One of the few props is a wooden frame that gets pulled out from behind the wall every time a visitor calls to stand in for a door. That made for plenty of comic stooping as people came and and went, but there was also something else going on, a psychological advantage gained, since almost as important as the glib promises and smooth chat for the Alchemist was to instil an attitude of deference into his customers. As any good magician knows, half the trick is manipulating the minds of the audience.
They are a well-drilled team, although susceptible to internal divisions. Early in the play, Dol brings Subtle and Face into line:
You must be chief! as if you only had
The powder to project with, and the work
Were not begun out of equality?
The venture tripartite? all things in common?
On this last line, she bends over and waggles her bum towards Subtle in a none-too-subtle double double entendre. Dol is a no-nonsense kind of girl, and gets what she can when she can. On the line “at Pie-corner” a hatch opens and a real pie pops out and Dol grabs a slice (looks very tasty). (The pie is an apt symbol for the kind of zero-sum economic enterprise this trio is involved in: each slice they take is one less for their clients. They’re not concerned to work with others to enlarge the pie.)
Face, in particular, is psychologically astute, not only identifying a gentleman who is “the heir to forty marks a year” and therefore worthy of their attention, but also noting that he consorts “with the small poets of the time” and is the sole hope of his old grandmother. The astrological mumbo jumbo refers to the correct planetary conjunctions and so on, but these conmen know the importance of going after the right set of personality traits and psychological characteristics that are ripe for exploitation. There is a remarkable line, when Subtle replies to Face:
Ay, sir, and reason too, the ground of art.
The link between reason and art, understood in their broadest senses, is profound, and picked up on I think by all sorts writers and artists. (By chance, in yesterday’s post I quoted Amis’s idea about the novel as “reason at play”.)
This production, however, also caught the crucial fact that they each have their own brand of credulity — there are moments when their jaws drop, where they can hardly believe that there are so many customers for their trade. And then they remember, humans are greedy! Instant wealth has long fascinated humanity, and in the days before the Lottery it was the Alchemist who held out the promise of transmuting base lead into gold.
Dol’s credulity is probably even older, she can barely believe that men are so simple that the flutter of her eyelashes and a thrust of her hip can have such an overwhelming effect. And then she remembers the thing hanging between their legs, and the biological imperative rooted in a 100 million years of mammalian evolution. (She is only intuitively aware of this last bit, although given that transformation was an early word for evolution — for the astonishing idea that one species can turn into another — I think she’d be fascinated by Darwinism.)
With Dapper, they have to deal with some routine, workaday scepticism. Face suggests “a rare star” reigned at his birth, allied “to the queen of Fairy” and that he was “born with a cawl” on his head. (The modern spelling is “caul” and on the morning we saw the play we switched on breakfast TV to catch one of those stories that grabs you, about a woman who had to give birth alone with the nurse on the other end of the phone, and it was one of those 1 in 100,000 deliveries where part of the amniotic sac — the caul — comes out with the baby. I’d never heard of the term, and then twice in one day. The doctor mentioned various superstitions associated with such a birth, for example, that the person would never drown. No mention of never being gulled.)
Subtle unfurls a scroll from the cabinet (the original dropdown menu), full of signs, which he interprets, mysteriously, with many fine hand gestures to authenticate the performance.
Surly is the sceptic, who “would not willingly be gulled” and is not impressed with talk of philosopher’s stones. Mammon demands of him: “Surly, will you believe antiquity? Records? I’ll shew you a book where Moses and his sister and Solomon have written of the art…” Surly remains “costive of belief”.
Mammon is a dashing young soldier, played with the right kind of outrageous energy by Andrew Venning, striding about the stage with shirt unbuttoned almost down to his belt and no vest on (see The Taming of the Shrew and the note on Petruchio’s costume — Mammon clearly has a thing or two to learn about posturing without looking like a prick). He provides another reason why the lure of the Alchemist is so strong — in this household his imagination is given license to roam in the most ridiculous ways, and he is permitted flights of fancy only a playwright could dream up and only actors could get away with:
…as I walk
Naked between my succubae. My mists
I’ll have of perfume, vapoured ’bout the room,
To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits
To fall into; from whence we will come forth,
And roll us dry in gossamer and roses.
I’ve not been to Stringfellows or a “gentleman’s club”, but I guess lines of succubae would not come cheap.
That famous Catholic cook Delia Smith would have something to say about Tribulation’s assertion that there are no “greater atheists than your cooks” — and don’t even raise the subject of glass-men and bell-founders:
What makes the devil so devilish, I would ask you,
Sathan, our common enemy, but his being
Perpetually about the fire, and boiling
Brimstone and arsenic?
Meanwhile, Mammon is trying his special charm out on Dol, disguised in a long purple dress, doing her best to hide her revulsion at the thought of having “cockles boiled in silver shells” and shrimps in “a rare butter made of dolphins’ milk” (this last makes her wretch).
In one more twist, James McGregor — who first came on as the sober, sceptical, very English gentleman Surly — enters in disguise as a Spaniard, with a cardinal’s hat (à la Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch) and matador’s tiny cloak, gibbering away in lisping fashion and striking a very continental pose:
Con licencia, se puede ver a esta senora?
Now, it’s the turn of Face and Subtle to wonder what on earth is being said. So far, incomprehensible gibberish has been the trademark of the Alchemist, for whom being understood would mean professional suicide. (This is one of those plays where being dumbfounded for at least part of the time is one of the author’s intentions for the audience.)
Mammon ends by declaring he “will go mount a turnip-cart, and preach the end of the world” — unwitting testimony that not much has changed with respect to the public’s attitude towards end-is-nigh merchants.
I saw this on the day I finished a review of Magic by Owen Davies for The Skeptic. One fascinating historical detail is the connection between magic and witchcraft, and the presence of sceptics who sought “to demonstrate that many of the manifestations attributed to magic or witchcraft could easily be replicated by props and sleight of hand” (Davies 2012:51). In his 1584 book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the Elizabethan gentleman Reginald Scot revealed how to convey “one or manie balles into nothing” and “monie out of one of your hands into the other”.
The mid-17th-century author Thomas Ady understood the importance of the techniques of distraction, of using “a dark composure of words”, as he put it, “to blinde the eyes of the beholders”. He knew that “when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the Trick is not so easily discovered, nor the Imposture discerned” (53).
Perhaps most impressive is how, long before psychology existed as a scientific discipline, these sceptics were discovering that “the key to the imposture of magic” — including alchemy — lay in the mind.
Today, for legal reasons, one has to be careful not to accuse psychic entertainers like Sally Morgan of fraud. Many psychics seem to genuinely believe they have paranormal powers, despite these often having to be supplemented with good old-fashioned research methods and cold reading techniques.
In contrast, there is little doubt that Face and Subtle are self-conscious conmen, but they carry off their scheme with such style that it’s hard — at least after this production — not to admire their energy and be impressed by their audacity.