The Alchemist, dir. Jenny Eastop for Mercurius Theatre (https://www.mercuriustheatre.co.uk/). The Rose Theatre, London, 11 June 2016.
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson
Mercurius Theatre and its award-winning director/producer Jenny Eastop have enjoyed a fruitful relationship with The Rose Theatre in recent years. The company’s deft hand with non-Shakespearean early modern drama has been evidenced by well-received productions of Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One (2014) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (2015), as well as Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass (2015). These plays were all notable partly because they were so rarely staged. By contrast, Jonson’s The Alchemist is one of the most frequently staged non-Shakespearean plays of the early modern period (including a production at the Royal Shakespeare Company this summer), which raises the stakes a bit. Eastop moved her versatile crew of actors through a shortened version of the play’s text at a breathless pace that managed to hold the audience’s attention despite a few problems.
As the publicity blurb for this production pointed out, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called The Alchemist “one of the three most perfect plots in literature” (the others, by the way, being Oedipus Rex and Tom Jones). However, the main problem with this production was that the plot was not entirely discernible. Plays at The Rose are always cut to very short run times with no interval, as there are no toilets available in the historic building, which consists basically of an archaeological dig with a small wooden platform shared by the actors and the audience. It may have been an impossible task to try to cut this play’s masterfully intricate plot down to ninety minutes, but this script as ended up without any discernible exposition of the play’s premise. An acrostic poem published in the front matter of the play in the 1612 quarto tersely sets up the plot: “The sickness” (i.e., the plague) being rampant in London, the master of the house retreats to the country, leaving “one servant there.” The servant (Jeremy, alias “Face”) takes up with “a cheater” (Subtle) “and his punk” (Doll Common, a prostitute) to defraud the gullible by telling fortunes, summoning fairies, and—most especially—promising to turn lead to gold, hence the title of the play. However, no such prologue was used in this production, and severe cuts in the first scene of the play left unsuspecting audience members at a loss as to just what Jeremy (Peter Wicks), Subtle (Benjamin Garrison) and Doll (Beth Eyre) were strenuously arguing about as the play began.
Aside from that rather major point, the play’s accelerated pace and revolving door of characters kept the audience very much engaged. Broadly drawn types such as foolish knight Epicure Mammon (Jeremy Booth) and materialistic tobacconist Drugger (Clark Alexander) were fleeced with ease by the three cheaters. Performing the play with only eight actors meant that some roles were doubled. Monty d’Inverno was especially successful at keeping his naïve clerk Dapper and his “angry boy” Kastril quite distinct. At other moments, however—especially in a play in which the characters themselves sometimes change costumes and take on differing personae—the distinctions between doubled, disguised, and dissimulated characters were perhaps unavoidably murky.
One interpretive choice that did not work was to make the Anabaptist deacon (Charlie Ryall) and pastor (Beth Eyre) look and dress remarkably like Catholic nuns. The Anabaptists—as lines actually spoken in the production made clear—were very much anti-Catholic and would never have worn the showy crosses used. Perhaps the best choice given the time constraints would have been simply to eliminate this plot altogether, as it ended up rather uncomically absurd, and reallocate a few more lines to the other plots.
Eastop has by this time become quite a master of exploiting the quirky space at The Rose, and in previous productions has skillfully utilized the far ledge, across the archaeological dig from the platform. For this play, however, written in 1610 for the King’s Men’s newly acquired indoor space The Blackfriars, part of the magic of the play is that all the scenes but one—the conversation with the neighbors when the master of the house returns—are indeed set in the same room, and thus an early scene in which one of the gulled gentlemen threw dramatic shadows as he made a long cross from the ledge to the platform was more distracting than meaningful. It also was a bit disconcerting that some of the costumes were noticeably—even on opening weekend—in need of repair, revealing unexpected amounts of skin and straps of underclothes.
Despite these problems, the play was indeed very entertaining. For those who were able to glean either from previous knowledge or a quick read of the programme what was going on, the play delivered its meanings effectively. However, Mercurius might do well to revive this play sometime in a longer format at another venue where people could more fully experience “one of the three most perfect plots in literature.” And we all look forward to the day when The Rose has received the funding and care it needs to install proper facilities that allow full-length productions to be staged at this important and beautiful site.