As previously noted, despite the fact I teach the specialist Jonson module at Nottingham, I've never yet seen any of his plays in performance. Happily, the ongoing mission of London's White Bear Theatre pub to promote the wider early modern canon couldn't avoid Jonson for too long, and last night was the turn of new company Let Them Call It Mischief to assay The Alchemist in a short, snappy production that gave the play room to breathe while adding a great deal of energy and invention to the presentation.
The single location of The Alchemist was realised as a huge furniture unit, with two narrow doors amid an array of drawers and cabinets, which opened at various points to reveal collections of potions, star charts, windows to the outside and, in the final act, the hat-wearing hands that represented Lovewit's gossiping neighbours. The varied use of this single piece of set allowed the location a certain fluidity, while maintaining a fixed sense of place. This was made more apparent with the use of a portable door, low enough to force everyone who passed through it to duck, which Face spent the play moving in and out of a storage space and repositioning in order to welcome the several visitors to his house. This device was particularly effective in establishing Face's control over the environment of the house, he literally creating the access routes in and out of the house.
Danny Wainwright not only directed, but also took on the role of Face at apparently short notice - an appropriate role for the show's director, in terms of the character's manouvering of the rest of the company. Wainwright slipped expertly between a number of disguises and personas, from the Cockney rogue that appeared to be his "real" self to the clipped RP of Jeremy the Butler and his gruff, military air (behind a ludicrously bushy fake moustache) as "Captain" Face. Face's default position was at the side of the stage, laughing knowingly at the follies of the successive suitors to the alchemist. In this sense, he provided the grounding for the play's tricks, the earthy ballast to the increasingly hysterical antics of Subtle and the finely drawn coterie of gulls.
This production was about folly, as established right from the start in the silent sight of the elderly and somewhat foppish Lovewit (Robert Rowe) leaving his house for what appeared to be a constitutional rather than a flight from plague. While the setting was nominally Victorian, the production didn't depend on period specificity, rather drawing on the period for a range of character types that usefully and broadly signposted the qualities (or lack thereof) of the various suitors to Subtle. Thus Dapper (Richard Taylor-Neil) was a moustachioed and affected Victorian gent; Surly (James McGregor) a suited and cackling villain; Drugger (Phil Featherstone) a simple Northern shopkeeper and Sir Epicure Mammon (Andrew Venning) a soldier complete with hobby horse.
The production began calmly enough, muting the initial opening outburst in order to draw the distinction between Wainwright's stolid and sure Face and Ed Cartwright's nervier Subtle. The two men showed clear antagonism to one another, but in a cool, sniping way rather than outright temper. Stephanie Hampton's Dol, meanwhile, wore a constant smile and flirtatious manner, attempting to charm the two men into accord - at least, until she finally lost her patience with Subtle and ended up pinning him to the floor and beating him. Dol, decked out in pink bloomers and beauty spots, fitted oddly within this production; with the part suffering from cuts, and a decision to play her consistently flirtatious rather than play up the stronger aspects of her role within the partnership, she seemed more subordinate to the other characters than one might expect.
Once the main play began, however, Face and Subtle relaxed into an easy dialogue that saw them manage the stage smoothly, trade whispered barbs and improvise with style. Cartwright was excellent when in full alchemical flow, reeling off his technical terms with only a few slips and managing the hidden compartments of the set to reveal fortunes, potions and assorted props. The two men also succeeded in creating clearly differentiated performances according to the gull in question. Mammon, for example, was treated to a histrionic performance by Subtle following the explosion in the lab, playing on his exaggerated ecstasy to heighten the effect of the disaster.
Venning's Mammon was the production's highlight. Cantering in and out on his hobby horse (which was also passed among the audience, thrust into the rafters when searching for the tricksters and rode sidesaddle with trepidation by Dol) and announced by a brass fanfare, Venning channelled Lord Flashheart in an energetic and luxurious performance that enslaved the character to his own passions, whether coming close to orgasm as Face described Dol's charms or bouncing around the stage as he imagined his new empire. He also raised the game of everyone around him, particularly after 'triggering' Dol's religious babble, when his prolonged and literally staggering kisses to silence her reduced company and audience to helpless laughter; or in inspiring Surly to increasingly melodramatic evil laughter as he plotted to foil the alchemist.
Everyone had their moment to shine. Drugger, in a bizarre moment, illustrated his previous experience as a Fool with a reenactment of being chased by a dragon, a scene which felt oddly tacked on, but his general slowness throughout became a running joke that worked far better. Alyssa Noble's Dame Pliant, all cleavage and bouncy hair, left the men open-mouthed; but Noble brought an interestingly sexual dimension to the character as she leaped between Face and Subtle and punched her brother when he attempted to restrain her. The choice to play Tribulation and Ananias as Catholic nuns jarred with the dialogue in which Ananias, of course, complains about Popish elements; but allowed for some interesting moments, particularly asHolly Blair's Tribulation decided to flirt to win Subtle over, the nun pushing her chest up against the alchemist and breathing in his ear. And McGregor's excellent Subtle came into his own in the second half too, dressed in a spectacular Spanish gallant costume and reeling off fluent Spanish that added weight to his first sight of Dame Pliant, when the Spanish lothario appeared to entirely take over his character. His bolstered codpiece also attracted attention from the furious Ananias (Claire Cartwright) who decried its immorality in a voice of outrage.
The most significant complaint about the production is that the cutting of the final act was extremely badly handled. While plenty of time was given to Lovewit's return and his confident acceptance of the situation granted him by a subdued Face, several plot ends were left hanging. Bizarrely, despite going to the effort of retaining Subtle and even hiding him in the closet, the production never completed his story, omitting the Fairy Queen episode entirely. More importantly, the final encounter with Subtle and Dol was removed, meaning that the characters were denied their ending and instead just disappeared after having been the primary movers of the first four acts. This was a huge disappointment, leaving the play feeling unfinished.
Despite this, The Alchemist thrived in the hands of this young company, rendering the action clear and entirely amusing. It also confirmed my suspicion that sympathy inevitably lies with Face - despite Surly's clear-sightedness (though in this production, his folly was confirmed by ludicrous tears following his loss of Dame Pliant), Subtle's cleverness and Dol's festiness, it's the steady and practical Face that controls everything. Fully entertaining, and I'll look forward to seeing what the company offers next.
Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.
The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.