When Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist was first staged in 1610 in a small room of an indoor playhouse in Blackfriars, London was something of a ghost town. Plague had hit the city, driving out everyone with money enough to afford the journey. Much of the play’s plot relies on this fact, and an atmosphere of debauchery coupled with a ‘cat’s away’ attitude are integral to the play’s success.
It was a similar atmosphere which filled an Oxford now almost bereft of students as I made my way to Freud’s to watch this OUDS production at the start of what I shall never refer to as 12th week. Oxford University Drama Society has big plans for The Alchemist – Edinburgh Fringe-shaped plans – and this three-night run in Oxford was the perfect chance for them truly to test their mettle.
The play’s programme promises to fuse Jonson’s script “with music and dance”, in “a vibrantly physical and shamelessly fun production” and sure enough, the music is prominent from the start and creates a tense and lively atmosphere throughout, keeping the action moving along swiftly.
Physicality, too, is quickly evident. Leo Suter’s Subtle is stark naked as the play opens, hidden only by a shower curtain as Georgia Bruce’s Face threatens to throw his clothes out of the window – “Believe’t, I will!”
It is this air of fun and enjoyment which pervades the entire performance, to the benefit of the play. It is clear throughout that each and every one of the cast is having a great time, and this rubs off considerably on the audience, which laughs its way through every farcical scene and humorous aside.
Face is a butler who has been left alone in his master’s house, and has gathered his allies in crime, Subtle and Dol Common, to con the city’s fools out of their money. This results in numerous changes of identity for all three main characters, which they handle expertly. Bruce is magnificent as Face, always remaining calm and in control, while never letting her disguise slip.
Suter is almost as good as Subtle, who pretends to be the titular alchemist, putting on many different voices for each of his targets, each more ridiculous than the last.
OUDS has clearly had a lot of fun with casting as well. Numerous characters have their genders changed from the original script, while some characters are just played by actors of different gender. Howard Coase is wonderfully deceptive as the prostitute Dol. All this confusion of identity, increased by a misleading presentation of the cast list in the programme (which suggests that the cast may shuffle around in future performances), contributes to the atmosphere of deception and trickery.
Each member of the cast delivers a stellar performance, and as such it seems cruel to pick any out, but special mention must go to Connie Greenfield’s Mammon. Sir Epicure Mammon wants Subtle to make the philosopher’s stone for him, and believes he has tricked the doctor into thinking that he’ll use it for good, charitable works. Greenfield portrays the character’s malicious naÑ—vety brilliantly, excelling further as Mammon’s lecherous side emerges.
It might have been nice to receive some of the dance we were promised, as a few of the scene changes feel a little sluggish in comparison with the rest of the fast-paced action, but as the production becomes more polished, this is surely a problem which will soon be rectified.
In all, this is a very solid production, filled with brilliantly delivered one-liners, metatheatrical hilarity and the very best in physical comedy. You have not lived until you’ve seen Ed Barr-Sim as Abel Drugger pursuing another character across stage while doing an impression of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.