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Louis de Rougemont, or, A review of The Fabulist

27 Mar

En route to the Social History Society’s conference in Glasgow, I’ve been reading Ron Howard’s wonderful book, The Fabulist (2006), the true story of Louis de Rougemont, the ‘Greatest Liar on Earth’.

Peter Carey could easily have chosen Louis de Rougemont as his subject for My Life as a Fake in place of the creators of Ern Malley, or otherwise used him as the model for Herbert Badgery, the boastful trickster-protagonist of Illywhacker. The man reads as a character lifted straight from Carey’s back-catalogue.

De Rougemont was a Swiss man born Edward Grin c. 1847 who created a furore in London at the end of the century. He conducted an audacious swindle on the the readers of London’s World Wide Magazine – and, more incredibly, on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In a serialised memoir which appeared in World Wide Magazine in 1898, he claimed to have spent thirty years in the wilds of north-western Australia as the god or king of an Indigenous tribe.

For a few months, de Rougemont’s stories of cannibalism and flying wombats in the Kimberley were seriously believed by many in London. He was even invited to address the British Association of scientists on two occasions, speaking to packed auditoriums. What could be more fascinating than his story of marriage to an Indigenous woman who killed and ate her baby so that she had enough breast milk to suckle a sick de Rougemont back to health? Or of discovering the lost explorer Alfred Gibson just before he died?

For the Australian public, de Rougemont’s fame proved the preposterous gullibility of the British public. It had been incredulous at first at the rapturous reception given to stories of wombats flying in clouds from a small island and vast gold reefs in the desert. That incredulity turned to scorn after it was discovered that de Rougemont had lived for decades in Enmore, Sydney, having married a fancy-goods salesgirl in Newtown. He had even fathered four children with her whom he abandoned when he came to London. Before that, he had been responsible for blackbirding Indigenous Western Australian men – that is, kidnapping them and forcing them to work on his two-bit pearler – and was even wanted as an accomplice to the murder of one of these men in the mid-1870s.

The story of de Rougemont’s unmasking as well as his contemptible exploits in Australia is wonderfully told by Ron Howard. Beautifully measured, structured and researched, The Fabulist is well worth the read for anyone fascinated by arch imposters and literary hoaxers – or even just in search of a good read for a transcontinental haul.

Note: a play based on de Rougemont’s life showed at Primary Stages in NY in Feb 2009: Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).

The Ballad of Backbone Joe

28 Feb

At Brisbane’s grandiosely-named ‘World Theatre Festival’ recently, I went to see The Suitcase Royale’s Ballad of Backbone Joe. It sounded perfect from the promotional blurb: an Aussie narrative set in an 1890s abattoir-cum-boxing emporium, full of rag-n-bone music and melodramatic intrigue.

Given that I am currently on the trail of Larry Foley, the legendary Australian bare-knuckle fighter-turned-boxer, said to have fought as a larrikin in the Rocks in the 1870s, I could hardly believe my luck. And what more promising name for a three-piece with theatrical leanings than The Suitcase Royale?

Action-shot from The Suitcase Royale’s site

The music, let me say, is really great – a cross between Nick Cave’s The Murder Ballads and the gloriously ratbaggish Melbourne band, Waiting for Guinness. I loved the Royale trio’s seedy-cheeky air and the lead’s gravelly voice, redolent of old suits and dark nights and spilled beer. I would certainly go to see them play a gig, and will sometime, if I get the chance. Sadly, however, one cannot say the same thing about the theatrical merits of The Ballad of Backbone Joe.

It was egregiously false advertising, for a start, to say that this offering is ‘set in the 1890s’ or (as the band’s website puts it) ‘the roaring carnival days of pre-war Australia’. The Ballad in fact possesses not an ounce of actual historical references, let alone verisimilitude. It revels in its historical shonkiness, in fact, making much of its wild anachronisms. One passes from a character peeking through plastic venetian blinds to another singing a pastiche of an early jazz song, from a fellow dialling on a 1970s telephone to the projection of grainy black-and-white photographs of boxers back in an indeterminate day. Worse than this so far as I was concerned, however, was the fact that the plot and acting was just as full of wild disjunctions –  the stuff of an undergraduate arts revue.

A word of advice, boys: if you are going to advertise a piece on the basis of its historicity, then do some actual historical research. (God knows it’s not very hard via Wikipedia and Google Books these days). Oh, and The Ballad of Backbone Joe needs some serious script development – otherwise, stick to the fab. gravelly shtick with the songs.

Slick, but no cigar: A review of Public Enemies

22 Feb

It is hard to imagine a life more suited to a Hollywood script than John Dillinger’s.

The hero-criminal of America’s Depression years was gunned down at a Chicago cinema after watching Manhattan Melodrama (1934), starring Clarke Gable as a murderous racketeer. Dillinger was betrayed by a Romanian madam in an orange dress that glowed red beneath the hot foyer lights. While not quite handsome, he possessed slick raffishness in spades, oozing a dangerous sass. Add to that thrilling bank heists, escapes from jail, and brutal gunfights, and you have a life led as if made for film.

John Dillinger

Given this, when I watched Public Enemies recently, the 2009 Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp, I was surprised that the script did so little with Dillinger’s life. It is really a love-story with shoot-out interludes, with Depp as a Dillinger more slick than raffish, and French actress Marion Cotillard as his apocryphal part-indigenous American girlfriend.

There are moments in the film which gesture at Dillinger’s hero-status in America during the dog days of the 1930s – a scene in which cheering crowds gather to glimpse him, for example, as he is driven to a Chicago prison by police.  Such moments are treated as a sketchy backdrop, however, because the real drama centres on Dillinger’s love life and his stand-off with the young-gun detective (Christian Bales) who is trying to catch him by ‘scientific’ means (and yes, that later relationship is as tired and uninteresting as it sounds.) The book on which the film is based is Brian Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI (2004), which presumably treated the growth of ‘scientific’ policing as its main game.

If you have anything of the romantic in you, there will be something to love in Public Enemies. Thanks in large part to the ravishing Marion Cotillard, a girl who plays tough and gorgeous in all the right ways, the love-story is lush and compelling, however apocryphal it might have been. It is also thanks to the film’s artful visuals and soundscape, the latter signalled from the moment Otis Taylor’s sublimely dirty blues begins in the opening jailbreak scene.

The historian in me could only be disappointed, however, at this failure to capitalise on the details of Dillinger’s life, on the incendiary social context of his escapades, and the legend he worked so hard to create of himself as the people’s criminal. Who wants yet another love-story or a film about the FBI when these things could have been explored? Certainly anyone fascinated with the Depression era or the outlaw tradition (whether among eighteen-century Sicilian desperadoes or England’s Dick Turpin or Australia’s Ned Kelly) couldn’t view the superficial treatment these things receive in Public Enemies as anything but a let-down.

Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal. A Review

12 Jul

A few years back now, I leafed through City of Shadows, Peter Doyle’s bestselling collection of Sydney police photographs, with a kind of uneasy fascination. Dating from 1912 to 1948, the photographs depict crime scenes in lucent sepia, their period fittings and unnatural stillness making them uncomfortably like an artwork rather than a documentation of bloody violence and death.


Doyle is just about to release a new collection, Crooks Like Us, which focuses much more on the mugshots taken by Sydney police in the same era: more shots of the razor-slashing prostitutes of the 1920-30s, more louche con-men and hard cases. These mugshots have the same sense about them as the crime scenes – that of hovering between retro artwork and gritty historical record, with touches of fashion photography thrown in: a horrible but beautiful and thus woozily fetishistic mix.

Many of the photographs used in City of Shadows and Crooks Like Us come from an archive held by the Justice and Police Museum in Circular Quay, housed in a sandstone building down by Sydney harbour which was once the Water Police Court. More such mugshots may now be seen in the Museum’s latest exhibition, Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal.


As exhibitions go, Femme Fatale is a small affair, comprising only two rooms. One of these is devoted to female abortionists convicted after botched jobs back in the day, which I walked through hastily, eyes only half on the walls. The other room alone is worth a trip to see, however: that is, if one is in Sydney, as I currently happen to be. Its eclectic exhibits include clay pipes used by convict women, trashy 1950s book covers, features on the underworld queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, the leather dildo used by ‘the man/woman murderer’, Eugenia Falleni, and trailers from 1940s films starring – yes, femmes fatales.

The most compelling exhibit by far, however, is the series of mugshots of women imprisoned in the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay (Sydney), taken predominantly in the 1920s. Every one of these photographs is immanent with imaginative suggestion. They were taken, I gather, when the women were first apprehended by police. Each includes a front-on shot, an oblique shot, and a full-length shot of the woman in question, standing against a curtain in her come-as-you-are street clothes.

Here is 19 year-old Annie Gunderson looking sullenly at the camera, for example, dressed in a rather luxuriant fur coat. One reads that she was imprisoned for stealing a fur coat from a department store – could it possibly have been the same one?! Here, too, is 20 year-old Jean Wilson, also committed for larceny. With her lovely dark eyes, fur stole and long white dress, she could be attending a studio photography session – until you remind yourself that she was probably hauled out of a police wagon only a short time ago.

As the inclusion of the fur coat and stole suggests, the State Reformatory photographs are a record (among other things) of low and flash female fashion in 1920s Sydney. There are plenty of cloche hats, high-heeled Mary Janes and drop-waist dresses a la Angelina Jolie in Changeling; plenty of bobs and hair done up with pins. The resemblance to a period film stops there, however, because there are other details which would not occur to current-day costumiers and make-up artists, and less still to Hollywood casting agents. Most of the women’s hair is dishevelled or badly cut. Most, too, look years older than their years. And the clothes, though in most cases making more than a stab at glamour, are almost all crushed and untidy. 19 year old Vera Purcell is dressed in a shiny coat which falls to her knees, for example – but the satiny material is greatly crumpled, almost ridiculously so. Others have high-heeled shoes with busted straps and dresses with wonky hems. Even the dark-eyed Jean Wilson, with her curled bob and fur stole, wears a dress that looks vaguely boxy, evidently inexpertly home-made.

The final note of Femme Fatale is struck by a notice containing contemporary statistics on female prisoners in New South Wales. While women make up only 7% of the state’s prison population, the number of female prisoners has apparently increased by 82% in the past ten years, with an average age of 33. Not only that: a full 50% of these women have a mental illness. That sombre and not at all glamorous fact is more uneasy to contemplate, perhaps, than all of the exhibition’s images combined.

You can see Femme Fatale at the Justice and Police Museum, cnr Albert and Phillip Sts, Circular Quay, Sydney, until 18 April 2010 (open 10am to 5pm on weekends only, and daily during Jan/school holidays). Peter Doyle’s Crooks Like Us will be launched at Gleebooks Katoomba in early August 2009.

City Traces

1 Jun

I’ve been going back to plenty of the classic Australian urban histories lately, to oldies-but-goodies such as Shirley Fitzgerald’s Rising Damp, Andrew Brown May’s Melbourne Street Life, Ronald Lawson’s Brisbane in the 1890s, & Graeme Davison’s voluminous back catalogue. It put me in mind to visit Julia Shiels’ Melbourne art-blog City Traces again.

Each of the natty yet poignant treats in the discarded series on this blog sums up what it means to be interested in urban history with a concision that never fails to please:

Some things cast long shadows

the city and its strangers#7 (Elizabeth St, Melbourne)


the city and its strangers#15 (Little Collins Street, Melbourne)

Such is life

the city and its strangers#9 (Tattersalls Lane, Melbourne)

The latest thing

On Punt Road Hill

A muted enchantment: Review of Dancing at Lughnasa @ the Old Vic

25 Apr


To merely step into the auditorium of the Old Vic Theatre in Southwark, London, got up at present for Anna Mackmin’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa, is to experience a kind of dusky thrill. Once the home for blood-and-thunder melodrama and reviled by West End critics for its crude sensationalism, the theatre is now a great, airy, elegant space, its elaborately-decorated Victorian tiers and boxes kept discreet in shades of cream and pale green. There is no stage, but rather a flat space in the middle in which the actors perform in the round.

The set for Dancing at Lughnasa is a simple kitchen arranged as if outdoors, with the bare boughs of a tree overhanging the room, and grass and rocks beneath the feet of those in the front rows. With the plain rusticity of the set and all that space beneath the great dome of the auditorium, taking one’s seat felt like stepping into a clear still evening, in the near-night of an entirely different place. This feeling of muted enchantment which came before Dancing at Lughnasa began lasted to its end. I am still of two minds, however, as to whether this was a good thing or not.

Written by Brian Friel, perhaps Ireland’s most esteemed playwright, Dancing at Lughnasa is set in rural Donegal during the Great Depression, during a week of festivities for the Celtic harvest-god, Lugh. It tells the story of five sisters, the Mundys, all living together and unmarried, who are collectively bringing up the illegitimate son of one of them: Michael, son of Chris (played by Andrea Corr, of The Corrs, here making an impressive theatrical debut).

Really, the play is all about loss or the presentiment of it: the coming loss of the pagan rituals of old Ireland and the Catholic faith of its austere rural communities in the 1930s, loss of the enchanted greenness of one’s childhood and more specifically, of the fierce intimacy shared by the sisters at the centre of the play. But the whole thing is told with such a beautiful modesty and with a hushed almost-detachment that one feels at one remove from the sadness throughout. This was a difficult and ambivalent experience, to be honest, and I am still wondering about it.

I think one of the reasons one feels this almost-numbness during the play is because it is presented as a series of memories by Michael, the illegitimate son. The action is framed by Michael’s narration of events taking place in his childhood, a week in which his uncle Jack, a disgraced priest, returns from years in a Ugandan leper mission. Occasionally, the adult Michael steps in to tell us things about his memories of Jack’s return and his family’s reactions to him. But we never see him as a child himself in those memories. He is always either hiding in nearby bushes or else represented as an invisible presence – the characters, if speaking to directly to him, address a mere space in the air.

The rest of the time, Michael is merely standing to one side of the set, looking on passively at his mother and aunts’ complex relationships, just as we do in the audience. Through this means one is thus made to inhabit his own semi-aloofness, and to feel at best his restrained nostalgia for people and hopes and customs now long gone.

Another reason for my hard-to-place reaction to this play comes, I think, from the fact that Friel writes in such a delicately-wrought and yet humble way. There is no aggressive tilting for dramatic effect here  (although occasionally one or two of the actors overstepped themselves, including the crucial scene  in which the sisters dance together at a supposedly artless juncture, shrieking and leaping with what I thought was an overdone gaiety). The script is instead written with an unassuming lyricism and its multi-layered events are quietly woven together, like a plain but dense circlet of leaves. Because of this, I keep finding myself returning to it now, touching its unglossed surfaces in jet lag-induced moments like this one, feeling a slow ache rising from it like a deep-set bruise.

La Clique at the London Hippodrome: a review

23 Apr

The ultra-commercial end of the carnivalesque market. That’s the variety-show, La Clique, currently playing at the London Hippodrome. It’s very much the queer people doing their thing for the straights. No one in the audience dressed up for the show, and it was punctuated by inducements to the patrons to buy programs and overpriced drinks at the bar. Let not that deter you, though: with a sense of the feel-good as well as the freakish, it still makes for a happily rollicking night out.


Fancy watching a double-jointed ‘rubber man’ push his body through the frame of a tennis racket a mere ten inches in diameter, squeezing it painfully over protuberant nipple rings? Listening to a mountainous black drag queen singing Radiohead’s ‘I’m a Creep’, her voice vibrating somewhere between Shirley Bassey and Antony & the Johnsons? Clapping as a girl burns off her pasties and the front of her g-string with a cigarette bummed from the crowd? Well ladies and gentlemen, well fellow tourists and suburbanites, La Clique is the walk on the wild-side we’ve waiting for. Prepare to laugh and groan and sing Queen lyrics during proceedings, and to applaud a lot at the end.

What struck me most during La Clique was how little removed this kind of show is from the variety theatre or music halls of the late-Victorian years. Certainly, the knowing queerness of some of its acts gives La Clique an inflection that variety theatre did not possess back in the day of the portly queen. But still, the similarities are striking enough. There’s the same emphasis on physical oddity, the same exhibition of bodily virtuosity, a similar instance of cross-dressing and the encouragement of participation from the crowd. Even the hard sell with the drinks, I gather, is pretty much the same. Then of course there’s the tendency to blue humour: Laura Ormiston Chant surely turns in her grave when La Clique begins of a night.

Seeing La Clique at the London Hippodrome, in the heart of the West End’s Theatreland, emphasised these historical connections for me. As a consequence, the whole night was full of the ghosts of variety-acts, adding an agreeably spectral dimension to its boisterous display.

Dan Leno, The King’s Jester: a review

20 Apr

He may have died in 1904 in a mental asylum at 43, but the Victorian music-hall comedian and pantomime dame, Dan Leno, lives on in an extraordinary travelling production about his life. It has often been lamented that no film of Leno’s acts were made, so that a sense of what allegedly made him ‘the funniest man on earth’ can only now be imagined from written reports and a few crackling recordings. In Tony Lidington’s extraordinary performance as Leno in Dan Leno: The King’s Jester, however, one finds the next-closest thing.


Although he was the most highly-paid musical-hall performer of his generation, achieving celebrity at the same time that the London halls themselves reached the peak of their acclaim, Leno was a vulnerable and ultimately broken-down man. He came to success only after grinding years as a child performer and competitive clog-dancer on the gritty Victorian travelling-show circuit, with a drunken and probably violent father (and later, stepfather) blighting his early life. Leno was also a committed unionist who atttempted to take on the fat cats of the entertainment industry by setting up rival music halls of his own. They crushed the endeavour as ruthlessly as they exploited their performers in the years just before Leno’s breakdown.

No doubt in part because of these things, there was always something troubled and painful about Leno’s acts, infusing even the brightest of his comic routines. This observation was often made by those who attended his shows, and contributed to the compelling nature of his persona on stage. 


This mix of melancholia and hilarity is also what makes Lidington’s performance so arresting. During Dan Leno, he performs a goodly number of the man’s most famous routines (‘Queen of My Heart’, ‘The Shopwalker’, a set-piece from one of his dame performances, and ‘The Hard-Boiled Egg and the Wasp’ among them). In each case, the acts are rendered as emotionally fraught, simultaneously funny and sad. They are also interspersed with a narrative about Leno’s life in a beautiful, eloquent, and tautly structured script which Lidington wrote himself on the basis of careful research.

Dan Leno: The King’s Jester is a collaboration between the Georgian Theatre Royal (Richmond) and Lidington’s own company, Promenade Productions. It isn’t at all a slick show – it’s built to be shown in anything from large halls to smallish rooms, with a basic-looking though cleverly-designed pack-away set. I saw it during a theatre-history conference at the University of Exeter last week; it is now in North Yorkshire and will continue touring until late May (see the tour schedule here).

Still, slick would be all wrong for this glimpse into Leno’s difficult and arguably glorious life. And given his origins as an itinerant performer, its own character as a travelling show is certainly apt. If you’re interested in the music hall or the history of stand-up comedy, and if you can see Dan Leno before it ends in late May, I really think you must.

(NB the above image comes from this web-page about Leno, and also appears in the V&A Museum’s theatre collections. Now I wonder where Charlie Chaplin got his sartorial sense from?)

Well no, actually: a review of Madame de Sade

17 Apr


The fact that a male Japanese playwright became intrigued by the life of the Marquis de Sade and chose to present it from the perspective of women closest to him whet my interest in Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade, now playing at London’s Wyndhams Theatre. Perhaps it was an attempt to demolish the indulgent misogynist from a proto-feminist vantage, I wondered? How interesting.

Well no, actually. Notwithstanding the fact that Judi Dench and the lovely Rosamund Pike play the starring roles, Madame de Sade is a ridiculous and (what is worse) an uninteresting play.

It really is ridiculous. For a start, the characters narrate background facts about the Marquis de Sade’s various scandals in an annoyingly didactic way while pretending to be in ordinary conversation. And then periodically, one or other of them – Pike’s Madame de Sade or her sister Anne (Fiona Button) or their dissolute acquaintance, the Comtesse de Saint-Fond (Frances Barber) – launch into soliloquies about epiphanies they’ve experienced while contemplating the Marquis’ deeds. Some of them decide that they are the Marquis in some mystical, glorious fashion, or that his evil is holiness and at one with the universe, or that he is building a light from filth and a back stairway to heaven: yes, the talk really is as breathless as this, only it goes on much longer. The script is so full of avant-garde posturing my muscles ache just thinking about it.

There was also a strange disconnect between the characters throughout the play, which may it clear that Mishima, that deeply troubled playwright, was essentially uninterested in the relationships between them. Far from presenting an empathetic feminine perspective, he doesn’t appear to have cared about the women in the play at all. They are simply there to be mouthpieces for his views, props for his own confused insights about sadism, beauty, pain, &c &c &c – the very antithesis of a proto-feminist approach.

This disconnect between the characters was most apparent in the case of Judi Dench’s Madame de Montreuil, mother to the Madame de Sade. Her character is yet another crotchety dowager, much like her Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. The Madame de Montreuil is constantly scheming to save the family’s name or her daughter’s virtue: motivated by self-interest, but genuinely affronted by her son-in-law’s corruptions. While other characters speak beatifically about their love-making with him, however, or while yet another preposterous soliloquy about the sacredness of profanity is offered in her presence, this dowager stands woodenly about on the stage, as if somehow unable to hear. Her next lines are delivered almost as if oblivious to what happened just before them.

There is nothing terrible about her performance – this is Judi Dench we’re talking about, after all, and I am grateful for the chance to have seen her. But her character is so hopelessly stiff, and was so evidently of little interest to the playwright himself, that there is nothing to love about it either.

Perhaps some of this sourness on my part is the curmudgeonly jet-lag talking. Admittedly, I saw the play through a fog of sleep-deprivation. And there were other people around me making positive noises among themselves once the curtain went down. The production is well-acted, with a fabulous cast, and sumptuous to look at. But really, I tell you, I’m shocked that this ‘little-seen’ play (as the publicity describes it) was here given the light of day.

Madame de Sade plays at Donmar at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London, until 23 May 2009.

The above image comes from skyARTS.

A review of The Alchemist (a Bell Shakespeare/QTC production @ the Brisbane Playhouse)

1 Mar


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.