Kicking off the Playhouse’s autumn season — and frankly we’ve been a bit lost without the place — is this new production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. Written in 1610, the play is as timeless in its message as it lends itself to personalisation in the modern day.
The story of a trio of conmen undertaking a series of elaborate dupes on unwitting victims all at the same time, this production owed as much to 70s farce as it did morality play (cue lots of slamming doors to hand around the rather awe-inspiring, deliberated rickety-looking set).
Rising star director Robert Icke throws everything at the wall to come up with a show that amuses and bemuses in equal measure, with an end result that is somewhat Shakespeare-cum-Rentaghost. Colourful, madcap and unafraid to take liberties, the production is knowing, confident and thoroughly meta.
In fact it is the kind of daring that evokes the spirit of our much-missed Everyman.
As subtle as a brick, it relied on strong performances to move the story forward and to escalate the madness as it unfolded. If ever attention dipped from concentrating on the 17th century text, never far away were some OTT physical gags ready to assault the audience’s imagination.
Ian Bartholomew (last seen on the Playhouse stage doing remarkable things as Brecht’s Arturo Ui) was unflappable as conman Subtle, giving another superlative performance; never losing his head when all around were losing theirs, often in noisy and downright bizarre ways.
The Alchemist, the Playhouse is aware, is a bit of a hard sell in any guise. But this production is gutsy, original, funny and brave.
The Alchemist runs until October 6. For more information, visit the Playhouse’s website here.
Picture by Tristram Kenton