A fast-paced farce set in 17th century plague-ridden London, the RSC’s production of The Alchemist sparkles with bright comic performances. Ken Nwosu shines as butler Jeremy (aka charmer conman Face). When his master leaves London to escape the plague, Jeremy joins with conman Subtle and prostitute Doll Common to rip-off the rich and gullible. In cutting the text for today’s audience this dextrous production bowls along, as con piles upon con. The atmospheric candle-lit set, decked with brocades and an incongruous suspended crocodile, adds to the fun, as do the pre-requisite multiple entrances and exits.
Comic characters abound, including a very politically incorrect Spaniard (England was at war with Spain at the time). A buffoonish and verbose Sir Epicure Mammon pops Viagra; a seemingly innocent tobacconist with designs upon a rich young widow remarks: “I do now and then give her a fucus” (a Jacobean cosmetic). Kastril, the widow’s angry, magnificently foppish brother, struts around the stage gesticulating with his sword. Then there is the poor solicitor’s clerk who is literally away with the fairies. Predictably the clergy are exposed for their greed with a couple of Whitefriars doing their bit ‘for charity’.
Still relevant today, Ben Jonson’s play is a sharp depiction of human folly and avarice. Inevitably the scurrilous trio fail in their pursuit of wealth and the master alone profits from their efforts to make base things precious; Face reverts to Jeremy the butler – social mobility as limited then as now.
The Alchemist, along with Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, kicked off the RSC London season at the Barbican. Part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, Cymbeline and King Lear (with Antony Sher in the title role) continue the run into December. Always top quality productions, impeccable acting, and with seats from £10 you can be sure of an entertaining night out.
There are two further RSC productions in town at the end of the year: Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing. As these are at the Theatre Royal Haymarket cheap tickets are either restricted view or balcony, but you may be fortunate and find some last minute half-price tickets at the booth in Leicester Square: www.tkts.co.uk/whats-on-sale.