The Alchemist – RSC

Isn’t it infuriating when you “did” a book or play at school and then x number of years later find you can’t remember a blinking thing about it!

In this instance it was The Alchemist by Ben Johnson, which I think I did for o-level English Lit.  All I could remember, when I booked the tickets 10 months ago, was that it was funny and about a servant turned con artist.  By the end of last week I’d managed to dredge up that there was a woman whose name I thought was Doll and maybe someone called Subtle!

It’s really refreshing going to see something you don’t know much about.  There’s no weight of expectation, no wondering how they’re going to tackle a particular bit of the play and no comparison with the last time you saw it.

I really like going to the Swan Theatre at Stratford.  The seats aren’t very comfortable but it has an intimacy that draws you in and makes you forget that you’re jammed up against two people, one of whom is a complete stranger, and that your bum has gone numb.

For this production there is a tapestry backcloth overlaid by a red velvet theatre curtain.  The props on stage as you enter set the scene; a table with candles, a cloak and a skull on it.

The opening of the play is frantic and full on – and funny – and throws you straight into the mayhem of the scam.  This play is a classic farce; get one party out of one door as the next is coming in through the other; wear one suit for one “client” and quickly change into another for the next.

The play shows, in a funny way, how people are conned through their desire to get something for nothing or find a quick easy way to increase their wealth.  Face, Subtle and Dol Common tap into the same gullibility that the email scammers of today exploit.

I liked the way Polly Findlay, the Director, kept the play moving along and the set designer kept the staging simple.  There was no faff to get in the way of the actors telling the story.

The actors playing Face, Subtle and Dol worked well as quarrelling co-conspiritors and involved the audience in their conspiracy.  One of the dangers of being on the front row is you often get co-opted into the play.  This time is was my turn with Dol Common learning over the stage having a rant at me; all I could do was laugh, which can’t have been much fun for her as I’d had a fairly garlicky tea!

I came out of the theatre feeling that I’d like to see the play again.  Partly because it was fun and partly to pick out bits that I missed this time.  It reminded me the Ben Jonson plays are always worth a look.  The characters don’t have the 3D quality that the best plays have but you can have rollicking good fun with 2D ones.

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