The Alchemist

Bringing Renaissance comedy to a modern audience is a tricky undertaking at the best of times. These plays don’t have the universal draw of the tragedies, the ever contextual political intrigue of the histories, or the wacky appeal of the mystery plays. Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was first performed in 1610 by The Kings Men at Blackfriars; it opened during a severe outbreak of plague, in a London consumed by disease. Vice and depravity were the order of the day, and this is reflected in the dissolute characters and chaotic plot. ‘Murder!’ is the cry that rings through the theatre in the first line. Oxford University Dramatic Society has taken on the challenge of bringing Jonson’s play to Fringe audiences, but has fallen rather short of the mark with their production of The Alchemist.

The production aims for eclectic fun (and it must be said, the cast appear to be enjoying themselves all the way through), but this interpretation feels amateur and unsure of itself.

The show’s blurb promises to fuse Jonson’s text with ‘music, dance and a vibrant interpretation.’ There is indeed a generic disco-electronic soundtrack to the show, but it doesn’t really interplay with the action or build atmosphere in any meaningful way. There is no dance, except for a rather tacked on knees-up by the ensemble at the end. As for ‘vibrant interpretation’, the production would like to be an exciting modern take on Elizabethan theatre but there is no coherent theme. The stage looks messy and cluttered, and the costumes range from the plain to the wildly glitter-covered to what looked like the contents of a child’s dressing-up box (especially in the case of Surly’s Spanish disguise). The eclecticism could have worked in favour of the production in terms of set and costume, but overall the modernisation needs a stronger conception.

The plot of Jonson’s play is convoluted due to its relentless intrigue, satire and treachery. The acting is good in places, especially from Howard Coarse and Georgia Bruce as they take on characters of the opposite gender, wearing a glittery dress and a tailcoat, respectively. The swapping of gender roles does intensify the already murky atmosphere of confused identity. However the production suffers from cutting the text to fit the requirements for a Fringe show, and as a result, it’s hard to follow the narrative.

The moments in which the show is successful are those in which the actors make an effort to translate the language for the audience. In a period piece such as this, it is first and foremost the responsibility of the actor to ensure that the audience comprehends and is excited by the language. Jonson’s verse is dense and full of arcane references and allusions which often require visual explanation. Connie Greenfield as Mammon is particularly adept at using her physicality to bring the verse alive, using exaggerated, grotesque body language to portray the conniving lecher.

An accidental highlight, judging from audience laughter levels, was the moment at which the entire set began to fall down. The Elizabethan sense of humour may have been lost on the audience, but a good old piece of slapstick seemed to hit the spot. The company dealt with this admirably, building quips into the script, which worked in the context of the general chaos that characterises Jonson’s play. Bruce took this one step further, weaving a witty reference to the scaffolding malfunction into the epilogue. Overall, the production aims for eclectic fun (and it must be said, the cast appear to be enjoying themselves all the way through), but this interpretation feels amateur and unsure of itself. 

Reviews by Sarah Grice

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The Blurb

The Alchemist is Ben Jonson's comic masterpiece: an exercise in hilarious mayhem, merciless satire and ingenious plotting. We follow Face and Subtle, a double-act of unrivalled chemistry on the English stage, in their tangled scheme of dupes and tricks to exploit the greed of locals, from the naïve Dapper to the flamboyant Sir Epicure Mammon. Condensed and performed at breakneck speed, this experimental take on a classic pushes comedy and playfulness to the fore. Fusing Jonson's most theatrically accomplished script with music, dance and a vibrant interpretation, we offer an urgently contemporary and shamelessly fun production.