The Alchemist, directed by Paul Burbridge for Riding Lights Company at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 22 February 2014
Review by Eoin Price
A version of this review was first published on asidenotes.wordpress.com on 23 February 2014.
Paul Burbridge relocated his Belgrade Theatre production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist to Coventry, trading Jacobean London references for contemporary allusions to the West Midlands. Our scene was Coventry and the setting was not Blackfriars, but Bond Street (on which the Belgrade is physically located). References to the Coventry Godiva Clock, Severn Trent Water, and Redditch (among others) engendered a tickle of audience laughter, but none more so then when St Katherine’s, the seventeenth-century hospital, was substituted for Leamington Spa, ‘where they keep the better sort of mad folks’. For some, this novelty was amusing, for others, irritating, but few, surely, can have felt that the changes did anything to illuminate the play. The jokes and references are simply too unspecific to work on any meaningful level and the targets seem chosen randomly (though, I should add, I’m not especially well acquainted with the geography of Coventry).
The bigger problem, however, was that the audience laughed at very little else in this production, and there may be a lingering suspicion among some auditors that the fault is with the playwright. This is unfortunate, for while the play is undoubtedly taxing – especially on the poor actors who have to play the shape-shifting Face and Subtle – Jonson provides plenty of comic material. Face (Andrew Harrison) and Subtle (Tom Peters) did competent work, indeed, Harrison, in particular, did a disconcertingly good job of managing the transformation from Face to Jeremy the Butler. However, not all of the disguises are as sharply and comically differentiated as might be hoped. Both actors did well when slipping out of their disguises, to reveal, with either a dash of smugness or a hint of frustration, their feelings about their fortunes, but the changes between disguises are less well realized. These difficulties are understandable, but it is harder to explain why Epicure Mammon (Kolade Agboke) throws away so many of his brilliant, ludicrous and luxurious lines. Agboke seizes upon the repeated phrase ‘Be rich’, but it’s a pity that he doesn’t do more with the rest of his speeches. The images – Mammon walking naked between his succubae; Mammon rolling himself dry in gossamer and roses; Mammon eating shrimps prepared in a rare butter made of dolphin’s milk – come thick and fast, but none of them are made to register.
Nonetheless, the biggest shame is that, as reported in local newspapers and confirmed in comments on the Belgrade website, so many audience members chose to leave at the interval. Those that didn’t stay missed a clever twist on Jonson’s ending. The text appears to imply that Face, (or Jeremy? it is hard to know which is the disguise), speaks his final lines directly to the audience. Indeed, the editors of the recent Cambridge Ben Jonson edition provide the stage direction ‘Addressing the audience’. But, rather than talking directly to us, Face spoke to Lovewit and Dame Pliant, who had remained on stage. In the early texts of the play, Lovewit, rather unapologetically, revels in his own ingenuity, before handing over to the ‘knave’ Face, for the final speech. Lovewit need not escape the audience’s approbation, but, at this critical juncture, he seems to distance himself from his servant. At the Belgrade, however, Lovewit and Face were more explicitly associated as accomplices.
At the start of the production, a black gauze curtain, decorated with faces, separated the audience (sat on either side of the stage) from Face, Subtle, and Doll. The three conspirators argue, ripping down the curtains, allowing the audience a better view of the action and symbolically beginning the gulling process. At the end of the play, the mesh curtains are put back again, as Face completes the house’s restoration. Notably, the staging echoes the play’s opening. Subtle and Doll are gone, of course, but Lovewit and Pliant take their places. Face’s final remark, that he will ‘invite new guests’ suddenly sounds less like a metatheatrical gesture to the audience, imploring them to come back to the theatre to watch the play again (or to tell their friends about the show) and more like the beginnings of a new scam. The issue of Lovewit’s complicity in the gulling has been subtly (pun intended) re-imagined. Indeed, there is a disturbing tonal shift here and the contorted, lurid faces on the gauze which stare back at us offer a potent reminder of the dark heart at the centre of the play.