It was all going swimmingly. The opening night audience were laughing, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, was proving comedy gold – and then 40 minutes before the end, its leading man, Mark Lockyer, collapsed in agony.
His on-stage sidekick, Ken Nwosu, rushed to his side, stopped the comedy and appealed for help. As medics worked on the stricken actor, RSC artistic director Gregory Doran took centre stage at The Swan Theatre last night fearing that he may have to ad-lib the final, key, scenes.
Casting a little spell of his own this courageous actor returned, albeit with a walking stick and a slight hobble, to continue with his fearless and thrilling comeback at a theatre he last worked in 20 years ago.
Popping out your knee is probably an occupational hazard in a frenetic and physical romp such as this but he earned everyone’s respect and admiration by returning to finish the performance.
It was clear from the eclectic medley of opening music, which effortlessly blends snatches of The A Team and James Bond with more historic chords composed by Corin Buckeridge, that we were in for something special and Polly Findlay’s fast-paced and witty production doesn’t disappoint.
The stage is awash with visual symbolism giving a clue to the sleight of hand tricks we are about to see. Our vision is obscured by smoke, its grand curtaining and artfully arranged desk is in the manner of a vanitas still life.
For The Alchemist is the granddaddy of every con-story you’ve every watched on stage or screen. A glorious satire that pokes fun at the vanity and greed of both 17th century London and also 21st century Stratford audiences.
The plague is sweeping through London, forcing the wealthy Lovewit to flee to healthier climes. He leaves his house in Blackfriars in the capable hands of his manservant Jeremy, who promptly invites two nefarious cohorts in to use it as a base to swindle the neighbourhood gentry.
The rich and the gullible pour through the doors in the foolish belief that an alchemist – Mark Lockyer’s scurrilous Subtle – can turn lead into gold, make shopkeepers into millionaires and gamblers into sure fire winners.
Jeremy, thinly disguised and calling himself Face; Subtle and Siobhan McSweeney’s brazen Dol tear through London’s working and upper classes – even taking a potshot at the church – robbing the rich to line their own poor pockets.
The person to lose most is Ian Redford’s wonderfully outrageous and avaricious Sir Epicure Mammon, an old roué hell bent on getting his leg over as many women as humanly possible and gorging on the luxuries of life.
In an extended scene the rapacious Mammon gushes out his innermost desires. The orgies, the gold, the banquets and the acquisitions. He was almost drooling at the prospect. “We will fornicate gold!” he bellows excitedly.
He is so obsessed with attaining wealth that he is convinced that Subtle has the philosopher’s stone (yes, the one Harry Potter got his hands on a few years ago) and can turn any base metal into gold.
Mammon also sets his cap at Dol and, popping a ye olde version of viagra into his mouth, he proceeds to mount her – before being cast off to roll around on the floor like an upturned turtle. Oh how we laughed.
Stephen Jeffreys’ insanely frenzied adaptation doesn’t falter for an instant and benefits from his judicious editing of the original script. There’s some tremendous language which may, or may not be Jonson. It’s ripe, bawdy and, in one instant, brought a shocked gasp from the stalls.
We’re left with a splendid ensemble piece which features, at its heart, Lockyer’s slick and crafty conman who bamboozles and fleeces the trusting natives with a concoction of bravado and gobbledegook. It’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Nwosu and McSweeney play their parts superbly well, the former using his silver tongue to lure in their victims and the latter to rob them blind.
And what larger-than-life characters they seduce. Richard Leeming’s innocent and naive tobacconist wants a bit of feng shui to make his business a success; the gormless clerk, Dapper (Joshua McCord) wants a clean sweep at the gaming tables and the clergy want cash for the poor – even if it means minting their own coins.
The powdered and wealthy peacock, Kastril (a beautifully turned out Tom McCall) wants to grow a backbone while his gorgeous, but empty-headed, sister (Rosa Robson rocking the vacuous look) is hunting for a socially connected suitor.
Hywel Morgan seems desperately under-used as the homeowner, Lovewit, until his unexpected return – and finding the trio hard at work in his house – has repercussions for everyone. Turns out he is as big a rascal as the con artists (and achieved with a certain twinkle in his eye).
Findlay choreographs the mayhem with a flourish. It’s hysterically funny from beginning to end – and that’s no mean feat when the production runs for 150 minutes.
And it looks sensational. The wigmakers and costume department have pulled out all the stops with this one.
The Alchemist runs in the RSC’s Swan Theatre until August 6 before moving to The Barbican Theatre, London, for a run from September 2-October 1.
Stephen Jeffrey creates comedy gold with his fabulously funny adaptation of Ben Jonson’s 17th century satire, The Alchemist, for The RSC.