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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 17 September 2016

"The Alchemist" by Ben Jonson

I saw the RSC production of 'The Alchemist' directed by Polly Findlay at the Barbican Theatre on Saturday (matinee) 17th September 2016. The cast included Ken Nwosu as Face, Mark Lockyer as Subtle, Siobhan McSweeney as Dol Common, Joshua McCord as Dapper, Richard Leeming as Abel Drugger, Ian Redford as Sir Epicure Mammon and Tom McCall as Kastril; they were all magnificent.

I imagine it is a difficult play to adapt; Ben Jonson packed it full of references to London in 1610. The company mostly cut or adapted these but kept most of the language authentic.

The play itself has a slightly lopsided structure. Many of the early scenes are repetitions of the same situation: another dreamer is coming to be parted with his money. It is not until later that some of the situations start to dovetail, the gulls come too quickly to be separated, the con artists start having to improvise and everything comes to a farcical climax.

I was impressed with Act 1 which starts with a furious argument between Subtle, the alchemist, and Face, the steward of the house; Dol Common mediates and they eventually shake hands. This was a great way of getting a bit of explanatory back story in at the beginning.

The scenes, in this Act and the others, run on one into another; often the knocking heard in one scene presages the entry of the character in the next; sometimes the main character of the subsequent scene has entered even before the last scene has ended. This makes a very smooth and faster pace than breaking everything up.

Act 1 continues with the arrival of Dapper, a young gentleman about town , "a fine young qoudling") the first of their gulls, who wants to win money gambling and is persuaded that Subtle can charm Dapper's aunt, the Queen of Fairy, to give Dapper a fly which will help him win. He is sent off to fumigate himself and recite 'hum' and 'buzz' thrice and change his shirt.

This scene is made especially difficult by references to topical issues (the RSC cut most of them out): Simon Read, who had been convicted of summoning spirits to discover a thief and Tobias Matthews, his cheated customer; Chiause, a Turkish imposter who pretended he was a messenger from the Sultan; Clim o' the Cloughs, outlaw etc. The RSC changed the word 'Chiause' in 'chirk' which meant something like 'sneak' and after Dapper protested that he was no 'chirk' Face used the word repeatedly as if he didn't know what it meant. Very clever!

Then Abel Drugger, a tobacconist, who has a shop situated on a corner, wants to know where to put the door to attract the most trade (Feng Shui?). The pair tell him what he needs to know and promises that he will be a great alchemist himself some day.

Their next mark is Sir Epicure Mammon. Subtle explains that Sir E has contracted him to provide the philosopher's stone so that Sir E can use it to cure illness, old age and poverty: "He will make/ Nature ashamed of her long sleep ... If his dream last, he'll turn the age, to gold." 

In Act 2 Sir Epicure Mammon boasts to Surly that when he has from Subtle the Philosopher's Stone he will make all his friends rich and cure all the diseases of the world, he will enjoy a harem and epicurean delights. Surly is sceptical which goads Sir E onto more extravagant claims. There is a lot of hot air in this speech which the RSC turned into comedy by making the other characters repeatedly attempt, vainly, to interrupt Sir E in full flow.

Subtle comes in and pretends to check with Face that all of the stages in processes A B C D E F and G are been carried out correctly; there are a lot of alchemical terms being used here as he tries to blind Surly and Sir E with science ("Some do believe hermaphrodeity/ That both do act, and suffer.") but Surly stays sceptical: "What else are all your terms,/ Wherein no one o' your writers 'grees with others?" A good question for today's sociologists. 

Dol walks across the stage and Face and Subtle tell their guests that she is the mad sister of a Lord who has been sent to be cured. Face hints to Sir E that her madness is nymphomania and Sir E asks: "Is she no way accessible? No means,/ No, trick, to give a man a taste of her - wit -"

Ananias, an Anabaptist, arrives. Subtle quizzes his 'apprentice' Face in alchemy; using lots of terms. But Ananias reveals that he has not brought any more money, his masters becoming increasingly sceptical and worrying that they are being duped. Subtle sends him packing.

Abel Drugger the tobacconist appears; he now wants Subtle to make possible a marriage between himself and a lady whose brother opposes the proposed match.

In Act 3 Ananias meets with Tribulation, a pastor from Amsterdam. They need money "For the restoring of the silenced Saints" (to help brethren who have are being persecuted by the established church) and to that end they see alchemy as an unpleasant means to a good end. "The children of perdition are, oft-times,/ Made instruments even of the greatest works." Besides, Tribulation is prepared to accept the excuse that the alchemist, being always beside sulphurous fire, is unable to escape being tainted with devilry: "Where have you greater atheists, than your cooks?" he asks. They are even prepared to accept coining as a way of getting rich.

Face is expecting a Spanish Lord to come soon in more than one sense of the word; he will get the man to fall for Dol "for she must milk his epididimis".

Drugger arrives with Kastril whose sister is the widow he would like to marry. K wants to be taught how to quarrel successfully).

Face extorts money from Dapper by promising him that the Queen of Fairy is coming. Then Subtle enters disguised as the Priest of Fairy and Dapper is blindfolded and made to throw away his purse, his ring and all "that is transitory" whilst Subtle and Dol pretend to be elves and pinch him. But Sir E is at the door! Hastily Dapper is gagged and carted away to be hidden in the privy.

Act 4 begins with Sir E being  introduced to Dol, playing the part of a mad noblewoman. She protests she is not noble; he answers
"Had your father

Slept all the happy remnant of his life
After the act, lain but there still, and panted,
He'd done enough, to make himself, his issue,
And his posterity noble"
A nice piece of anti-hereditary propaganda from Jonson
Sir E promises Dol wealth, for "I am the master of the mastery": he will possess the philosopher's stone once Subtle has manufactured it.

Kastril returns with his sister. Face has promised to arrange a marriage between her and Abel Drugger but Face really fancies her and wants her for himself. Subtle and Face argue over Kastril's sister. Then Spanish grandee Don John arrives. Face has promised a wife for him, having Dol in mind, but Dol is presently engaged with Sir E, so Subtle and Face decide that Don J should have Kastril's widowed sister ("There is no maidenhead to be feared or lost"). Don J is actually Surly in disguise, come to expose the conning rogues. He speaks Spanish, which Face and Subtle do not understand, and they speak English, which of course Surly does.

Kastril is pleased at the thought of the Spanish count for his sister but she, Dame Pliant, resists; she has hated Spaniards since the time of the Armada. But Kastril more or less forces her.

Dol, talking to Sir E, pretends to be raving lunacies. Subtle blames Sir E for this and warns that Sir E's impure thoughts will destroy the experiments (at which point, using a fuse that trails across the stage, with a wonderfully loud theatrical bang and a lot of smoke, Face blows the workshop up. Sir E's hopes are dashed.

Surly tells Dame Pliant that she is being conned and accuses Subtle but, in a wonderfully neat trick, Face turns the tables on Surly by accusing him of being the rogue at which point Kastril and Abel Drugger (who had wanted the widow and turns up) join in chasing Surly away. Now Face proposes that Abel dresses up as a Spaniard himself, to woo Dame Pliant. Surly has the clothes but there might be some spare ones from the actor who has just been playing Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (a part Jonson is believed to have played).

Then Dol announces that Face's master, the owner of the house they have used, is in the street outside talking to the neighbours. Face needs a shave and then he will delay his master while Dol and Subtle get all their ill-gotten gains together and decamp.

So Act 4 runs into Act 5. The neighbours tell Lovewit, the owner of the house, of all the comings and the goings but Face (in his guise as servant Jeremy) tells his master that plague visited the house (the cat got it) and so he shut the house up; no one came or went. The neighbours retract their statements.

Surly and Sir E arrive, to confront and accuse the rogues; they go off to get officers of the law. Then angry boy Kastril comes, and priests Ananias and Tribulation. Then Dapper cries out from the privy; they had forgotten him!

Subtle arranges that Dapper meets Dol, dressed as the Queen of Fairy, and receives a fly from her to help him with gambling. The three rogues are about to decamp with the loot but Face reveals that he has confessed all to his master for a pardon and the loot is confiscated by the master. The only thing that Subtle and Dol can do is flee as the Officers of the Law come to the door. Sir E claims his pots and pans which were to be converted into gold but cannot prove they are his so Lovewit keeps them. The same happens to the priests. Lovewit has also married Kastril's sister and gets a dowry from him.

Well! It started slow but it certainly ended up in classic farce.

Ben Jonson also wrote Volpone which I saw in a brilliant performance by the CandleLight Theatre Company at the Cockpit Theatre in north London at the matinee on 13th February 2016.

September 2016; 185 pages
 

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