trio of rogues

Three rogues together: Siobhán McSweeny as Dol Common, Ken Nwosu as Face and Mark Lockyer as Subtle. Pictures: Helen Maybanks

The Alchemist

The Royal Shakespeare Company,

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


IN A raucous and funny story by Ben Jonson, The Alchemist tells a humorous story about a doctor called Subtle, his aid, Face and their voluptuous woman maid, Dol Common, as a trio of conmen, luring people into their trap to take their money.

When a beautiful widower arrives, Subtle and Face who were once bound by trickery are now divided between the love and lust for the woman.

The entire night was incredibly entertaining. To a person who may not be familiar with the plot, it may be uneasy to follow Jonson’s many tricks and twists, but director Polly Findlay holds the story with much accord and delivers it with beautiful execution.

Each actor has their own striking memorable characteristic and it is easy to decipher who is who and know exactly where they fit into the story. Findlay has indeed highlighted the wonderful talent of the company, giving actors the freedom which leads to pure delight from the audience.

The set is also unique. Helen Goddard’s desDolign transforms the stage to the alchemist’s smoky and dark office. Beautiful dark tapestries are hung on the back wall and his table is filled with apparatus and trinkets alluding to Elizabethan medicinal purposes.

There is a constant air of smoke with a fire burner, creating a hint at the allusion and wizardry that Subtle possesses. Actors use the set to their advantage and the pit is used as their experimentation ground, as Subtle hopes to turn metal to gold.

Siobhán McSweeny as Dol Common

When things go wrong in the middle of the play, a mighty explosion came from underneath, frightening the audience with awe. The addition of the band is also a gem. In a delightful pre-set, they flit from medieval court sounds to playing tunes from action films of today, getting chuckles from the familiarity from the audience.

Like many medieval plays, Jonson has set his abroad, in 17th Century Spain. The plague is gripping the country and the only safe place is Subtle’s home, holding the cure for the disease. Knowing that he has power, Subtle capitalises upon the despair of others, informing that he may turn any metal into gold and that he holds the philosopher’s stone, they key to eternal life.

The initial characters within the Alchemist’s home show a tight bond and a deep pleasure in tricking the community. There are some great farce scenes which are made great by the quality of the actors who are on point at every single moment.

When the trio try to make Dapper (Joshua McCord) part with all of his money, they take on brilliant disguises as dapper is blindfolded. The audience know exactly the aim of the trio’s ideas, but Dapper has no clue. Doll was dressed in a fantastic fairy costume, using an hilarious fake French accent and even flying to create a funny spectacle, while Subtle and Face were donned in wigs and masks in order to complete the robbery.

Mark Lockyer as Subtle could be watched all day. He holds such a confidence and charm to the cunning Alchemist that is seen like no other. Subtle holds many personas and he flits back and forth between being real and cunning in order to trick people of their money. The audience know exactly when he is conning another character because he lets the audience in on his gags, telling us exactly what he is doing with small winks or smirks.

This makes for some hilarious moments, for example when Able Drugger happily gave away his supply of tobaccdapper and subtleo or as Dapper handed his whole purse over. Lockyer has taken the dark and mystical character of the Alchemist within his stride. His sublime talent and fantastic command of the stage truly is one of a kind. Even Lockyer’s look is perfectly fitting to the cheeky wizard. He wears a long grey wig, coupled with dark robes which trail to the floor.

Joshua McCord as Dapper and Mark Lockyer as Subtle

His presence is completely believable and he has the ability to play the comedy at the perfect moment, but also knows when he is dealing very serious business, like any conman would.

Ken Nwosu as Face is also a wonderful addition to the gang of conmen. Throughout the play, he has a sweet charm and brings most of the comedy to the stage. In disguises and trickery, Nwosu takes charge in developing a warm and likable character. It is interesting how Lockyer and Nwosu persuade the audience to be on their side, in spite of the fact that they are cunning robbers. In a farcical play with tongue-in-cheek gags, mostly played for the entertainment of the audience, we commend their artistic efforts to make the comedy happen.

Nwosu is impressive throughout, always helping Subtle out in his plans of getting as much money as possible. At the end of the play he deliberately breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience in a stand-up sequence. We are distracted by his funny and charming words so much that we do not realise that he is slowly transforming to modern dress from his Elizabethan costume. Suddenly, the set is pulled down and everyone takes their bow as actors of today. This impressive curtain call shows the power of theatre, making us believe the tale of the story and the whole world around it. It was easy to do, as we were fully enchanted by the superb talent of all the company.

Wonderful performances were also given by Siobhan McSweeny, who played the feisty Dol. She had an impressive talent to mould her accents in order to charm those around her. Tim Samuels was also memorable in his portrayal of Sir Pentax Surly, especially within his disguise as a Spanish courtier, creating some fun and jolly scenes.

Jonson’s charming play is a great production of entertainment and farce. It is to watch to see great acting, complemented by a funny plot. The audience are in great hands with the company and Findlay’s direction and the production is a grand reflection of Elizabethan living and humanity at its best, or worse. To 06-08-16 at Stratford then at The Barbican, London, 02-09-16 to 01-10-16.

Elizabeth Halpin



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