Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist is based on the cruellest of premises and shouldn’t in fact be a fun play at all. It’s raison d’être is to reveal the stupidity of a succession of hopeless cases who allow themselves to be gulled by Subtle and Face, two conniving conmen, and their sluttish collaborator, Doll Common. That the play continues to be performed centuries after it was first staged in 1610 is testament to its mischievous humour, which lends a seamy glamour and hard-edged geniality to the otherwise depressing glimpse it offers into humankind.
You can’t stage The Alchemist successfully without a love of the raffish, and without a blend of waggishness and rapid-fire comic timing. That is why, to be honest, I had my doubts about John Bell’s direction of the play currently showing at Brisbane’s Playhouse Theatre. The Bell Shakespeare Company does bloody and tragic successfully, but what about boisterous and cheeky?
I am pleased to say that this latest take on The Alchemist delivers the goods. It doesn’t top the Neil Armfield version I saw more than a decade ago with Geoffrey Rush and Hugo Weaving in Sydney. It started a mite slow, and never got up quite the head of steam of that other production. But it still heated up quickly, and in the last half really got cooking in a happily madcap and laugh-out-loud way.
Almost all of the cast in Bell’s version is fabulous, not least Andrew Tighe as Face and Patrick Dickson (pictured above) who plays the cynical Subtle with an admirable lightness of touch. For me, Sandro Colarelli as Surly – the one character who sees through the leading pair’s various dishonesties – surprisingly stole the show. Colarelli played Surly with just the right mix of pomposity and silliness: an unexpected treat. But there were plenty of other great characterisations to choose from – all of them, in fact, except Georgina Syme’s Doll Common (all slouchy gesture and no heart) and Tribulation Wholesome, the greedy Puritan, a bit-part in any case (played by Peter Kowitz with a not terribly convincing American accent).
Perhaps the cleverest thing about Bell’s rendition of this play is the way he detaches it from any particular historical period, with dress-styles grabbed from a hotchpotch of eras. Thus Scott Witt’s hilarious Kastril appears as a would-be home-boy, a sort of ocker Ali G in pimpin’ fur and laughable bling. The wonderful David Whitney as Lord Epicure Mammon is resplendent in velvet frock-coat and wig reminiscent of Regency debauchery. And Face is a captain in vaguely Napoleonic attire who switches to a servant in rubbery apron from an indeterminate age.
This transhistoricality was a natty way to emphasise the motley improvisational skill of the central fraudsters, I thought. And it also brought home the sheer longevity and continuing relevance of the swindler-dupe phenomenon portrayed in the play. Over all the years since Johnson wrote The Alchemist, his exposé of gullibility and cunning has indeed remained painfully keen. And keen it still is now, in these scam-ridden times, and this rollicking Brisbane production of the play.
Verdict: Go see it while it lasts!
The Alchemist is a collaboration between the Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company, and plays at the Brisbane Playhouse between February 23 and March 13.