The Alchemist, directed by Polly Findlay, The Swan Theatre, Stratford, 26 July 2016, second row Ground seats

Par Stéphanie Mercier
Publication en ligne le 05 septembre 2016

Texte intégral

1In the sulphur smoke-infused enclosed atmosphere of the Swan theatre a table piled high with objects including a skull, chemistry jars and herbs was placed in one corner of the stage whilst a crocodile hung from the ceiling. The apparatus was evocative of the seventeenth century but there was an obvious impulse to bring the production as up-to-date as possible from the outset. The musical overture was harpsichord Baroque but interspersed with themes from Mission Impossible, James Bond, Indiana Jones or The Entertainer theme from The Sting – designed without doubt to remind the audience that the characters in the play were to be as untrustworthy as its title. Indeed, the three main protagonists of the various scams carried out through the intrigue – Face, or Jeremy, the housekeeper (Ken Nwosu), Subtle, the “alchemist” (Mark Lockyer) and the savvy Irish-accented courtesan, Doll Common (Siobhan McSweeney), Face and Subtle’s colleague-cum-love-interest – who were left to their own devices at the town house of Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) during an outbreak of the plague in 1610, were anything but reliable. Decidedly determined, as the programme has it, to turn the house into a “den of criminal activity”, the production, as the play, very successfully pulled the wool over both the conies’ and the (consenting) audience members’ eyes all through.

2The first gull to appear was the black hat and bloomer-wearing, bad toothed and poor witted Dapper (Joshua McCord), a lawyer’s clerk who was on the lookout for luck in gaming but who would, instead, be lightened from all his riches throughout the plot. Subtle’s affirmation of Dapper’s affiliation to the Queen of Fairy by her having kissed him at birth encouraged the obvious idiot to raise expectations from forty shillings to five thousand pounds, which he was encouraged to do (as long as he bathed and fumigated himself, fasted and dropped vinegar in his nose, cried “hum” and “thrice”, and deposited a hefty commission to ensure this). Next entered the beige-clothed and perceptibly naive Abel Drugger (Richard Leeming), a tobacconist eager to make commercial fortune by means of knowledge of the best position for his door and which shelves to use for his pots. Subtle promised him that he would be, by the next spring, a sheriff – seeming to converse with an invisible divinity, perceive the star of fortune and the mercurial (little) finger in Drugger’s body as he did so. After receiving tobacco by way of reward (all such booty was systematically stashed in the lowered crocodile’s mouth by Face during the production) the powdered wigged, chest-armoured Sir Epicure Mammon (Ian Redford), a knight, and his doubting Thomas gamester friend Sir Pertinax Surly (Tim Samuels) entered. The former was motivated by turning all the metal in his house to gold but his hopes of the philosopher’s stone were not just material. Ensued a hilarious listing of his hoped-for contradictory conquests : fifty wives and concubines a night, but also a cleanliness that he claimed would be brought about by his venture. Face, appearing from below stage, goggled and fully cloaked in a yellow furnace attendant’s outfit, did not contradict him. Neither did Subtle’s pseudo-scientific language accompanied by an ominous extra-diagetic melody designed to cony-catch the foolish old man contradict his expectations – although Surly tried as hard as he could to do so. Doll next appeared as a maid gone crazy by studying scripture, complete with virginal rosebud lips and plaits designed to make Mammon mad with love, while Surly made further claims of the place being a bawdy house and then revealed, in an aside, his own design to disguise himself to bring the scam to light.

3In the meanwhile, the crocodile was fed more money before Ananias (John Cummins), an Anabaptist deacon of Amsterdam, arrived, to be accused, by the now crucifix-sporting Subtle, of cheating anyone not of his persuasion, followed by violent accusations and chair chasing, almost down to the furnace : an emotional blackmail intended to facilitate the exit of the deacon and the fetching of Tribulation Wholesome (Timothy Speyer), a pastor of Amsterdam and a close associate of Ananias. Drugger re-entered, with another piece of gold to “devise a shop sign” that would become, not a balance but his name devised in mystic characters (the side-splitting “A – Bell – D and Rug, that’s Drug. Snarling dog = rrr. That’s A – Bell Drugg–Er”). Then, the tobacconist’s news of his wish to wed a nineteen-year old widow, who also had a twenty-one year old brother desirous to become an expert at the fashionable art of quarrelling, led the now pipe-smoking Subtle to announce that he had, conveniently, devised a table to learn how to do so.

4Subsequently, Subtle explained the benefits of the philosopher’s stone – an increased congregation and “casting” (rather than “counterfeiting”) coins – to the Anabaptists. To intriguing music, both churchmen descended to view the metals (before giving up a hundred marks to make projection and twenty more for coals) whilst a Spanish-flag-colour-stripy-dressed Spanish count (Surly) entered and Doll was informed that she must “tune her virginal” to entertain him. Dapper, certain to become the darling of the dice and Drugger, bringing more tobacco and the Widow’s brother, the incredibly agitated, stick wielding, grimacing wannabe angry boy, Kastril (Tom Mcall), then came on.


Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC

From left to right Kastril (Tom McCall), Face (Ken Nwosu), Subtle (Mark Lockyer)

5Face presented Kastril to Dapper, whom, having performed the ceremonies of the vinegar and the clean shirt, was fit to encounter the Queen of Fairy, or rather the veiled lute strumming Subtle, who made Dapper put on a petticoat and blindfold before Face wheeled the half-wit around and Doll, alternately playing an elf or a squirrel, bit him in a bid him to throw away his purse, handkerchief, wrist band and silver ring. Because Mammon unexpectedly rang the doorbell, the mischievous doings were for an instant interrupted, Dapper, still attired, had his mouth stuffed with gingerbread was put into the privy just before a well-deserved interlude for all.

6The neck breaking pace of the second half of the production was set off by the entrance of Epicure Mammon desirous to “heighten” himself in conversation (and a connoted blue pill) with the “poor Baron’s daughter”, or rather Doll, who winked knowingly at the audience as she entered. After some on-stage rolling about, from which Mammon was unable to rise without Face’s help, the couple left to “be particular”. Kastril and the gorgeous and, apparently, just as gullible, young widow, Dame Pliant (Rosa Robson), arrived for the quarrelling lesson during which Subtle challenged the angry boy with a candle snuffer in lieu of a sword, and the “Spanish Count” appeared – ostensibly to also be “pumped and drawn dry”. As Doll was occupied, the tricksters had no choice but to “make the widow a whore [...] as it is but one man more” and she left stage with the “Count”. Doll, in one of her Biblical fits, almost immediately re-entered with now-repentant Mammon, whilst Face lit a fuse that had whatever was below stage exploding, emitting a cloud of smoke that filled up the stage and sent Mammon off home to be penitent – but not without the conmen trickster pocketing another hundred pounds in the process. The Spanish “Count”, having, despite himself, preserved the widow’s honour, could have also preserved hopes of her hand in marriage, had it not been for Kastril, who, convinced by the others of his cheating nature, picked a fight with him. Drugger came on stage with flowers, with which he also hit the forward suitor and the Anabaptists then entered the clash : surrounding Surly and pursuing him around the stage as they did so. After a round of applause for Kastril’s quarrelling prowess, Drugger was relieved of the damask silk he had brought for Subtle and smoke again filled the stage.

7Unfortunately for the tricksters, Lovewit prematurely returned despite the plague – the seventeenth century equivalent of the neighbourhood watch posted in the audience only too happy to let him know of the double-dealings that had been going on since his departure as he did so. Face became Jeremy again and the ever presence of Dapper in the privy or his emergence from it, still blindfolded and splattered in what appeared to be excrement, could only be covered up by the vision of Dame Pliant, who let herself be enticed by the master into his chambers. This provided the theatrical space for another hilarious final scam, in which Dapper was divested of all his final resources by Doll, airily suspended by Jeremy/Face by means of a pulley and as a French-accented hoop-petticoat adorned fairy deity speaking to her “nephew”. The last laugh, however, was for Lovewit, who after letting the gulled customers, the neighbours, and the officers (Will Bliss, Gabriel Fleary, Natey Jones) inspect his house, made off with the proceeds of all the fraudulent enterprises, and Dame Pliant, who herself drew a knife on her brother when he attempted a quarrel with her to prevent this. The wonderfully timed and riotous production ended, as it could conceivably have begun, in a contemporary setting, with Jeremy, having taken off his sixteenth century clothes, in modern garb, hawking theatre tickets : to accompany the epilogue and to very fittingly attend the concept of conmen, not as a bygone, but as a very modern, phenomenon.

Pour citer ce document

Par Stéphanie Mercier, «The Alchemist, directed by Polly Findlay, The Swan Theatre, Stratford, 26 July 2016, second row Ground seats», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], L'Oeil du Spectateur, N°8 - Saison 2015-2016, Adaptations scéniques de pièces de Shakespeare et de ses contemporains, mis à jour le : 05/09/2016, URL :

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Stephanie Mercier holds a B. A. Hons. in French and Economics from the University College of North Wales and a Master in English Studies from Poitiers University. She is a professeur agrégé who gives Science-Politiques and French Business School entrance exams preparatory English classes and who also teaches English to Theatre and Film Studies undergraduate students and undergraduate-level Translation, when applied to the economic environment. As a mature student, she is completing her PhD : “Th ...