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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre, London

By Rachel Halliburton

Ben Jonson's ‘The Alchemist' carries the unmistakable whiff of pretension laced with dung. While at points the text executes dazzling flights of verbal virtuosity, at others it descends into sewer-style vulgarity: and at both ends of the scale it seems that the playwright seeks to expose human nature at its most rancid. In his mind we see the twinning of the scholar and the scoundrel - a man fluent in Latin and Greek who also often went to jail, once for murder. Here his knowledge of the underworld is honed into a piece about an elaborate scam where the victims' greed makes them as culpable as the defiantly unscrupulous criminals.

Despite the difficulties of the reference-raddled text, Nicholas Hytner's decision to stage ‘The Alchemist' at the National Theatre initially seemed a saliva-inducing prospect for theatrical gourmets. Few actors in Britain have won as much critical acclaim as Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, and here's the first chance to see them together on stage. Jennings is the titular ‘alchemist'- the con artist, Subtle - who defrauds or ‘gulls' his clients by pretending that his mystical powers can bring about everything from effortless wealth to recovered youth. In a world where Internet scams, increasingly absurd breeds of therapy, and botox babes abound, it seems people's willingness to be deceived has shifted little over four centuries. Whether wearing a doublet and hose or sweat pants, gulls will always be gulls.

That's partly why Hytner has updated the play to the modern era, with references ranging from Audrey Hepburn to Britain's most notorious political buffoon, deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. However, this allows the production to connect with the audience despite rather than because of the text. Although the words have been edited and subtly updated by Samuel Adamson, there are still passages whose meaning is as difficult to catch as the hairs from the tail of a racehorse. Russell Beale ­- who plays Subtle's sidekick Face ­- has a comic talent, which allows him to exploit words as much for sound as meaning, which provokes laughter in the theatre when there's sometimes all too little understanding.

Still, there's a strong case for using this play to showcase two theatrical titans. Subtle and Face are chameleons of conning, shifting disguises and accents for each client - so that Jennings, for instance, goes from Californian guru to acerbic Scot, while Russell Beale bustles between upright navy captain and daft Dutch furnace-tender. Many London critics have raved about their double act, but, heretical though it may sound, it's difficult not to feel that both are constrained by Jonson's caricatured, self-consciously clever world-view. Unless you've swallowed the text whole beforehand (and beware conceptual indigestion) this is a testing night out, redeemed only occasionally by flashes of pure gold.


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