Idolatrous breeches! Roaring boys! Smock-rampant! Quarrel him out of the house! Even without the famous speeches – the sham spells, the preposterous visions of ever-inflating lust – Ben Jonson’s ‘The Alchemist’ is a treasure trove of sparklingly silly quotes. The conmen central characters may fail in turning base metal to gold. But in Polly Findlay’s RSC production, the language sputters like a potion on the verge of transmutation.
It’s brought quickly to the boil by adapter Stephen Jeffreys, who’s cut the script by a savvy 20 per cent. A new prologue steers us smartly to Blackfriars, 1610. London is plague-riddled, and property owners have fled as fast as their heeled and ribboned shoes will carry them. While his master’s away, servant Face colludes with fellow-con artists Subtle and Dol to swindle a series of gullible visitors. Returning early, the master finds his house full of crazy characters, a crocodile dangling from the ceiling, and ‘madam’ scrawled on the wall with a dildo.
In the meantime, we get an explosive period farce of greed and chicanery with few energy lags and plenty for fans of ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Yonderland’. Foppishly OTT Jacobean costumes complement the verbal embellishments. The set, a candlelit still life replete with gleaming vials, red velvet and momento mori skull, is more ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’.
As the bogus alchemist of the title, Mark Lockyer’s Subtle is as grizzled and grouchy as Bob Geldof, but manipulates human desires with real magnetism. Ken Nwosu’s streetwise schemer Face slips smoothly between Jacobean verse and modern intonation. In the new epilogue, he questions whether those of us paying £49 a seat might not be gulls, too. Siobhan McSweeney’s earthy Dol is the grounding influence – when not dangling from the rafters pretending to be the Fairy Queen.
Among the excellent supporting cast, the biggest laughs go to Ian Redford’s aging pleasure-seeker Epicure. Interrupted in the act of straddling Dol, he rocks on his back like a tortoise. ‘We will fornicate gold!’ he cries at the climax of several applauded speeches. With a little help from the script reviser, Ben Jonson can outbrag even Kanye West.