The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th June, 2016
Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy owes much to the works of Roman comic playwright, Plautus: the scheming servant using his master’s house for illicit purposes, the characters typified by flaws, fast action and comeuppances – all are here in breath-taking form.
Face (Ken Nwosu) takes advantage of Lovewit’s absence to house a couple of partners-in-crime, namely Subtle (Mark Lockyer) and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney). The former is the titular ‘alchemist’, conjuring jargon and nonsense with which to con their victims into believing that, for the right price, he can supply them with the philosopher’s stone, which Harry Potter fans will know has the power to turn base metals into gold. The latter is called upon to playact a range of parts to support the cons, including a hilarious sequence involving a fairy queen spinning above the stage. All three are excellent, displaying the energy and versatility of the hustlers as well as the underlying tensions between them. Their ‘venture tripartite’ is as volatile as any of Subtle’s concoctions.
They are strongly supported by a range of victims, including a swaggering Joshua McCord as Dapper who wants supernatural assistance for his gambling, a dopy Richard Leeming as tobacconist Abel Drugger who wants the Jacobean equivalent of feng shui to ensure success for his business, and a bombastic Ian Redford as the hedonistic Sir Epicure Mammon who desires nothing less than the mythical stone – and to get his leg over where he may. John Cummins makes a zealous Ananias, and there is plenty of ridiculous posturing from Tom McCall’s Castril and Tim Samuels’s Surly, in disguise as a Spanish popinjay.
The action is fast, furious and farcical, aided and abetted by some judicious cuts to the text (courtesy of Stephen Jeffreys) and the whole enterprise is pervaded by a sense of fun. Polly Findlay directs her company assuredly, keeping them on the right side of exaggeration and timing the surprises to perfection. Long before the time Lovewit (a charming Hywel Morgan) returns and commandeers the proceeds of his butler’s schemes, we are won over by Face, thanks to an agreeable performance by Ken Nwosu, and are glad he (spoiler alert) gets away with it.
At the end, Nwosu strips off his period livery to reveal a Ramones T-shirt and jeans. He tots up the takings of the evening’s full house and is pleased. We have all been ‘gulled’ by yet another disguise, or Face, and we thank him for it. Human nature has no changed a bit. Fools and their money are still parted, but tonight we have got the better end of the deal.
Cheeky Face (Ken Nwosu) – Photo: Helen Maybanks.
Leave a comment | tags: Ben Jonson, Hywel Morgan, Ian Redford, John Cummins, Joshua McCord, Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer, Polly Findlay, review, Richard Leeming, RSC, Siobhan McSweeney, Stephen Jeffreys, Stratford upon Avon, The Alchemist, The Swan Theatre, Tim Samuels, Tom McCall | posted in Theatre Review
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd July, 2015
Trevor Nunn’s new production of Ben Jonson’s 1606 comedy is contemporary in setting and feel. It is our world of smart phones and tablets, of ECG machines and CCTV. The text too has been tweaked to include present-day references to the Grecian economy, for example, bringing the satire up-to-date. The point is to remind us that human nature has not changed. The flaws and foibles Jonson satirises remain all too current.
Volpone is a con artist, fleecing avaricious types who seek to inherit his fortune. You can almost see the pound signs in their eyes as they flock to what they think is his death bed. In the title role, Henry Goodman is magnificent, smooth and slick; his Volpone has an innate sense of fun. He is a conman we can admire – part of the enduring appeal of stories about confidence tricksters is our enjoyment of the cleverness of the scam, being in on it with the tacit acknowledgment that we, the audience, would never be duped… And, of course, the victims deserve what they get; they are terrible people.
The excellent Matthew Kelly is Corvino, a jealous, abusive tyrant of a husband, who turns out to be willing to whore out his wife if it means he will be named Volpone’s heir. Geoffrey Freshwater is in good form as the doddering Corbaccio, willing to disinherit his own son in order to secure Volpone’s riches. We enjoy seeing these men stitched up, due to Goodman’s splendidly timed asides and hilarious fakery. A baldie wig and no small amount of drooling work wonders. True, Volpone too is motivated by avarice but his victims are taking advantage of what they presume is a feeble invalid at death’s door. Where Volpone oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable is when he attempts to force himself on Corvino’s comely Mrs, Celia (Rhiannon Handy). This is why Volpone has to be punished at the end.
Goodman is a thoroughly charming silver fox and each disguise he assumes is audaciously funny, for example the Italian mountebank who mangles the English language into something that sounds ruder than it is. Volpone is aided and abetted by his able sidekick, Mosca (the elegantly expressive Orion Lee) – a bit like Clouseau’s Cato but without the impromptu karate attacks.
Annette McLaughlin is funny as the grotesque Lady Politic Would-Be, here portrayed as a self-obsessed reality TV diva, complete with cameraman in tow. The ever-appealing Colin Ryan makes Peregrine a likeable American backpacker, and Andy Apollo makes Bonario a dashing heroic figure. The peculiar trio of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite (Jon Key, Julian Hoult, and Ankur Bahl, respectively) add a bizarre touch of colour to proceedings. Every home should have such a trio.
The action shifts along at quite a lick – you barely notice the running time – and the show belongs to Henry Goodman, in the most entertaining performance of the RSC’s current season. Jonson turns moralist at the end as the judges mete out punishments left, right and centre. We are admonished to look to our own conduct. It is one thing to enjoy the vices of others, vicariously at the theatre, but quite another to indulge in those vices in our real lives.
Orion Lee helping Henry Goodman look his worst. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
1 Comment | tags: Andy Apollo, Ankur Bahl, Annette McLaughlin, Ben Jonson, Colin Ryan, Geoffrey Freshwater, Henry Goodman, Jon Key, Julian Hoult, Matthew Kelly, Orion Lee, review, Rhiannon Handy, RSC, The Swan Theatre, Trevor Nunn, Volpone | posted in Theatre Review