The Alchemist, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon — assessment

Mark Lockyer in ‘The Alchemist’. Photo: Helen Maybanks©Helen Maybanks

Mark Lockyer in ‘The Alchemist’. Photo: Helen Maybanks

In the Royal Shakespeare Business gift shop in Stratford-upon-Avon you can purchase a Shakespearean Insult Generator kit, but old Bill was as nothing compared with his near-modern Ben Jonson. He is all too seldom staged these days, due to the fact his language refuses to be tamed. It can be dense, classical, or inventively vulgar . . .  sometimes all at once, as when one particular of the conspirators right here remarks of his companion operating on a single of their con victims, “She have to milk his epididymis.” It is virtually incomprehensible (the epididymis is element of the male genital plumbing), but sounds flamboyantly filthy and so gets the job carried out with verve.

The master of a London townhouse has fled to steer clear of the plague his butler has invited in a fraudulent alchemist and a whore, and together they gull a succession of victims ranging from a foolish but ambitious tradesman in search of a type of Jacobean feng shui reading to an epicurean nobleman (named, in fact, Sir Epicure Mammon) and a cult of religious dissenters who alike seek the limitless wealth of the Philosopher’s Stone.


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It’s fundamentally an excuse for a series of swift-modify comic turns, interwoven at ever-rising pace as with the greatest classic farces, till — also farcically — everything unravels at after.

The oddest issue about Polly Findlay’s revival is that it is not ostentatiously frenzied. Ken Nwosu as Face the butler, Mark Lockyer as Subtle the grouchy alchemist and Siobhán McSweeney as Dol Typical perform with the comparative calm and surely the assurance of practised swindlers. (Corin Buckeridge’s score suggestions us the wink with an overture of assorted movie themes including that of The Sting.) They can even improvise arguments that are virtually as vicious as their true ones.

Nevertheless, without having appearing to, the pace and intensity steadily build, stoked by the likes of Ian Redford’s hymns to excess as Mammon and Tom McCall, who manages to be at once languid and turbulent as a young man who desires to discover how to be fashionably quarrelsome.

And you can’t say the RSC are not acquiring their money’s worth out of that life-size plaster crocodile hanging from the ceiling: this isn’t its initial appearance this season . . .  it’ll be getting a programme biog subsequent.

To October 1,

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Section: Arts