The Alchemist: an enjoyable tale of Jacobean conmen

Theatre review: The Alchemist by Ben JonsonDespite a smattering of baffling 17th-century slang, the RSC’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is an enjoyable, high-energy comedy, says Matthew Partridge.


Rosa Robson as Dame Pliant, and Mark Lockyer as Subtle. Photo: Helen Maybanks RSC

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, currently running at the Barbican, is a classic comedy about the human propensity to be gulled by get-rich-quick schemes (until the rise of modern science, many conmen made a lot of money by claiming to have mastered alchemy transforming base metals into gold).

It's 1610 and the plague has forced the wealthy Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) to flee London, leaving his house in the hands of his butler, Jeremy (Ken Nwosu). Seizing the opportunity, Jeremy takes on the persona of Face and hires two tricksters, Subtle (Mark Lockyer) and Doll (Siobhan McSweeney), to help him fleece the citizens of London.

On one level the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of this play, directed by Polly Findlay, is very traditional, making few concessions to the modern audience. Not only is this version set in contemporary costume, but the text is left largely intact. This means that it lasts a whopping two hours and 45 minutes (including a 15-minute interval). As well as the running time, there are large number of plots and subplots, while the tangled language is filled with slang. This means that at several points the audience only has a rough sense of what exactly is going on.

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Nonetheless, the parallels between the gulls of Jacobean London and those of the modern day are startling. One obvious example is the tobacconist, Abel Drugger (Richard Leeming), who goes to the trio for advice on business matters. They end up giving him guidance on everything from the layout of his shop to how the sign advertising his business should look. Had they been still around 400 years later, they would easily fitted into the world of management and design consultancy. The epilogue, where Nwosu's Jeremy strips down into modern clothes and mocks the audience for paying to see this show, tries to make a similar point, although it doesn't quite work.

What really makes the evening enjoyable is the high energy of the cast and the broadness of the humour. You don't have to understand the nuances of 17th-century religious politics to understand the hypocrisy of Ananias (John Cummins), who is happy to dabble with the occult in order to make money for his sect. Similarly, the foppish Kastril (Tom McCall) is eager to learn about manners, but is willing to push his widowed sister into a marriage with a complete stranger in the hope of social advantage. Overall, this is a world where morals and respectability are just a faade and everyone is willing to be bought off.

What the papers say

The Alchemist runs at the Barbican until 1 October. Box office: 0207-638-8891

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri