The Greedy And The Gullible

The director Polly Findlay shows once again her ability to invest a classic play with a modern sensibility

Theatre
Rogues and doxies: Ken Nwosu and Siobhan McSweeney in “The Alchemist” (©Helen Maybanks/RSC)

In Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, a scurrilous “venture tripartite” of three household rogues sets out to trick a crowd of gulls, fortune-seekers and elderly seducers out of their dosh. Our three tricksters here are as fissiparous as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, united only by mutual suspicion and a sense of their own superiority. If the overarching message of the play, whether in 1610 or 2016, is that greed and the gullible are never far apart, the structural tightness of the drama lies in reflecting alchemy beyond dodgy chemistry: everyone in the play aspires to transform their lives by stealth and become something they are not.

Director Polly Findlay has joined forces  with writer Stephen Jeffreys to cut good chunks of a dense script whose heavily-layered references (A-level veterans might recall) can become overly intricate. Findlay locates the play in a luxurious Jacobean world of heavy red curtainage, and lighting director Charles Balfour has flickering beams bouncing off mirrors and glassware, as if to underline the porousness of Schein and Sein (appearance and reality) as the deceptions unfold. Perhaps the biggest comic star is one that does not grace the original version at all — a stuffed alligator as a storage place for ill-gotten loot.

Our alchemist Subtle (Mark Lockyer), with flowing locks and a sorcerer’s cape, has an ability to shift an expression of venal boredom into pained earnestness whenever a new client bangs on the door. The gobbledegook of pseudo-science is so well rendered that we can readily imagine Subtle fronting a new show on the benefits of homeopathy and natural cures for cancer.  Ken Nwosu’s Face is a plausible butler-turned-fixer, who ends up leaping up and down into the diabolical depths of the alchemist’s cellar in yellow protective clothing, like the meth-cooking duo in Breaking Bad. For sheer entertainment value, Siobhan McSweeney carries off the (tarnished) gold medal. She translates the role of the doxy Doll Common into wry observer of the men’s stratagems — in one scene mugging the latest poor sap with an index finger held rudely aloft to her partners in crime. Doll ends the play hoisted precariously in mid-air, flapping her arms as the “Fairy Queen”, a gold puffed skirt hanging half-unfastened off her crinoline, with the moue of a disgruntled factory worker required to do overtime. The comic art here is that there is nothing in Doll’s presentation that is not supported by the text, but a role that could easily tip into a pantomime number gets a new lease of life — and a bit of feminist oomph too.

Findlay’s skill is the ability to invest some of the great plays with a discreet modern sensibility.  So Sir Epicurean Mammon (Ian Redford) casts a knowing look at the audience as he downs a Viagra before a seduction that tilts from the carnal to the gargantuan: “We’ll therefore go withal, my girl, and live/In a free state, where we will eat our mullets/Soused in high-country wines, sup pheasants’ eggs/And have our cockles boil’d in silver shells.” It ends, as it must, with the sudden return of the household master, who seizes his own chance to nab the glamorous Spanish widow. Poor old Surly (Tim Samuels) shifts effortlessly from sour tax-inspecting type to vaudeville Spaniard in an attempt to unearth the plot, but leaves empty handed. The final satirical bite in The Alchemist is that even when the rogues lose the plot, the boss class gets the girl.

The darker offering from the RSC’s two-play stint at the Barbican, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, also treated to a haircut, runs with no interval, creating a taut, hectic race through the life of the amoral philosopher. Faustus (Sandy Grierson), a worshipper of the occult, is here a shaven-headed contemporary intellectual so bored with the slog of understanding life that he resorts to nihilism, looking and sounding like the kind of bored contemporary artist out to shock the critics. Maria Aberg’s sparse production gives us a harsh stage of cardboard boxes and discarded books, Stanley-knife fights and a soundscape of mounting dread. Faust’s seductions evoke the predatory exploitation of a paedophile, which is a stretch, since Helen of Troy (Jade Croot) was wordly enough to look after herself.

The perennial problem of Faustus for modern audiences can be that devils are hard to make scary for a modern audience. This production tries to solve that by allowing us to be entertained and chilled at the same time, with a host of burlesque minor devils and hideous popes and princes. The eagle-eyed will note that this owes a lot more to Complicite’s production of The Master and Margarita than to Marlowe. This interpretation sees Faustus and Mephistophilis (Oliver Ryan) as two sides of the same character — so much so that who plays each role is decided by chance on stage, via a contest to see whose lit match is extinguished first, so you might well end up seeing them the other way round. Aberg’s vision has few moments of redemption in sight. The grand metaphysical sweep suffers a bit in the reshaping, but the dull ache of ambition turned to despair and violence resonates around the howling empty stage of the final scenes.

The polite version of a Faustian bargain is the one between the young and the old. So raise your hipster pork pie hat, please, to the Lyric Hammersmith. It has succeeded where many off-West End theatres try and fail to lure a younger audience and stage work targeted on the next generation of theatregoers, with carefully selected works. True, the scrawled pseudo-graffiti on the walls looks a bit like a Grange Hill set — an idea of what tolerant adults in the arts thing the kids like. But I watched Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to Be True among an audience of twenty-somethings torn between reliance on parents and a desire to be free.

Set over a year in the home of the Price family in Australia (this is a co-production between a young British theatre company, Frantic Assembly, and the State Theatre Company of South Australia), we meet Rosie (Kirsty Oswald) nursing a broken heart and empty bank account after her gap year. The warmth of kitchen table chatter gives way to outbreaks of jealousy and spite, followed by the restitching of relationships which allows family life to roll on, warts and all. Imogen Stubbs is domineering mum Fran who favours her sons while Bob (a careworn Ewan Stewart) faces redundancy and a crumbling marriage in the perfect Dad-on-the-rocks storm.

This warm-hearted and clear-eyed saga of modern families goes on to tour shortly to lots of places with student audiences, ending up at Chichester, spiritual home of mum and dads, in November. Take your stroppy offspring and you’ll both recognise the shifting alchemy of the domestic sphere, in all its squabbling glory, regrets and resilience.