The Alchemist at the RSC

May 29, 2016

Ben Jonson‘s The Alchemist is a wonderful play to read – full of deception, abuse, wit, fast-paced, hectic, non-stop action; I was looking forward to seeing it in performance. We saw the first preview, which is the first time it’s played before a live audience, and so were warned to expect some rough edges. And there were some; the whole performance had me thinking more deeply about the kind of play it is and how a twenty-first century audience can respond to a seventeenth-century social satire.

Herein lies the problem, it seemed to me: it’s a genre we aren’t familiar with, and cannot really liken to anything we are familiar with: it’s not farce, it’s not pantomime, it’s not sitcom, though there are elements of all of these. It’s hilarious – when the audience gets the jokes – and that isn’t always.

The plot is pretty complex and convoluted, basically involving a trio of confidence tricksters fooling all the other characters most of the time, but also fighting amongst themselves; at the end their schemes are brought to a sudden stop and all is revealed, but no-one is really punished. The tricksters are let off (no doubt to have another go another day), and the conned put up with their losses rather than be publicly exposed for the fools they have been…

The first half of the performance was fast-paced, and this was a problem, perhaps with the genre: there was no variation is pace or pitch or tone, which became monotonous and a little tiring. The second half was better in that there was a sense of its gradually building up to a crescendo (actually a real explosion!). The actors were all really good, energetically playing their stereotypical characters to great effect.

Although when reading the play I was aware of the cardboard nature of Jonson’s characters – there’s very little development, and no real need or opportunity for the audience to sympathise, or indeed dislike them – this does also affect one’s response to performance, where the thinness of the characters is going to be much more evident when they are onstage in front of us. In the end, it was quite an enjoyable romp, which will surely be slicker and better and funnier after a few performances. And it was my second play of the day, so I was a bit tired, and probably less appreciative than I’d be another day…

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