Unusually for a director who has made a name for herself by radically updating classic texts, Polly Findlay’s version of The Alchemist is a period production.
It’s a justified choice. As the playwright Stephen Jeffreys (who adapted this version of the play) notes in the programme: Jonson was a playwright who, unlike Shakespeare, always set his plays in the present. Accordingly, The Alchemist is a play very much of its age: satirising the immoralities and hypocrisies of anabaptists and knights, whilst the threat of the plague looms threateningly in the background. To remove it from these contexts would be to deprive Jonson’s play of one of its greatest merits: it being a biting satire of the Jacobean era, reflecting its greatest desires and fears.
And yet the play’s specific cultural context doesn’t detract from its ongoing relevance – paradoxically, it remains recognisable without any need for updating. Its characters (frauds, tricksters and hypocrites) are familiar enough already, and its themes (the susceptibility of the avaricious and vain, and the inconsistencies of those who judge them) don’t need to be tied to the present-day to feel prescient. Seeing how vigorously Jonson interrogates the mores of his own age, it’s impossible not to draw parallels: that we too have our exploiters and our exploited; that we are all made vulnerable by our own greed; and that we are often misguided in the things we value.
Findlay’s production has resounding clarity and never fails to entertain. It’s a play that pays dividends in the final few scenes if the scenarios are made clear (it’s fir to say that some of them could easily feel pretty obscure to a modern day audience…) and if the satellite characters are vividly drawn. That’s certainly the case here – and in Findlay’s hands, Jonson feels as much a master of comedy as Shakespeare or Moliere.
Mark Lockyer as Subtle, Ken Nwosu as Face and Siobhan McSweeney as Dol all deserve a mention. Lockyer is appropriately subtle (I’ve seen a couple of Subtles that were all theatrical fireworks and no substance, whereas here it really feels like we see the man behind the con artist); Nwosu has bags of charisma; and McSweeney, brilliant comic timing and a near-divine nonplussed-ness.
This production is a real lesson in how masterful a comic writer and how continually relevant Jonson is. It’s also a lesson in how a stripped back period production can still speak to a modern day audience (if the conditions are right…).