Monday, April 13, 2009

The Alchemist

Bell Shakespeare & Queensland Theatre Company Present THE ALCHEMIST by Ben Johnson, Directed by John Bell.

THE ALCHEMIST written in 1610 by Ben Johnson is a satire of greed and the follies that ensue from the pursuit of it. The Bell program notes give us a thorough contemporary overview of practitioners we know. It includes references to Christopher Skase and Alan Bond, Bernard Madoff and Peter Foster. Contemporary texts/films of comparison include THE GRIFTERS, THE STING and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS.

Ben Johnson following on from the success of VOLPONE (1605-06) returns to the satire of his fellow man in 1610, and sets his target in London itself this time, VOLPONE been set in Venice. "It was staged in the autumn of 1610, exactly when the action takes place; the theatres had recently reopened after having been closed by the plague, the same pestilence that had sent (his character) Lovewit (Russell Kiefel) into the country and made his house available for the con-game. The house is located in Blackfriars, the district that contained and gave its name to the theatre where the play was first performed. The customers who come to Face (Andrew Tighe) and Dol Common (Georgina Symes) to seek the help of Subtle, the Alchemist (Patrick Dickson) represent a cross-section of English culture in 1610: the modest lawyer's clerk, Dapper (Bryan Proberts), the hopeful shopkeeper, tobacconist, Abel Drugger (Lucas Stibbard), the lubricious knight, Sir Epicure Mammon (David Whitney), the radical Puritans, Ananias (Richard Sydenham) and Tribulation Wholesome (Peter Kowitz), the roaring boy, Kastril (Scott Witt), the rich widow, Dame Pliant (Liz Skitch), even a visiting Spainard, otherwise known as Surly (Sandro Colarelli). All hope to have their lives transformed by "the cunning man"." All, of course, after an hilarious adventure comes undone and to naught. (Well, except for the amoral Lovewit.) Such was its accuracy that in the 1600's it was well loved and supposedly "laughed [one] into virtue" and "provoked hatred of one's own vices." The character of Mammon was regarded as the best non-Shakespearean comic figure in English drama.

The Bell Company has set the play in a rehearsal room and present a play within a play. (Set and Costume design by Bruce McKinven.) There is a metaphor of the character's needs for hasty improvisation in the scheme of things. The costumes for the quick changes are set on racks and the furniture doubles up for many locations and wheels on and off in full view. The actors and some stage management, at first, are sat or perched around the set to watch the action with us. The consistency of this is not altogether clear.

The costumes are the star of this production. Witty and admirably appropriate for each of the characters and then transformed by the wonderful physical characterisations of the actors they are almost sufficient to carry the story by themselves. Certainly as creations standing by themselves the satiric nature of Mr Johnson's lambast is crystal clear. Congratulations Mr McKniven.

The physical choices, and the energic brio which all of the actors bring to their work is outstanding. The John Bell tradition (almost) of exploring the vaudeville physicalities (Commedia) of his comic characters (going all the way back to his wicked work on the seminal 1970's production of THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, his outrageous guidance to the actors in the famous Belvoir St. production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING) is glorious in its invention and clarity. In fact, I believe, if the text were left unspoken we might have a funnier night at the theatre. A silent mimed play!!!!!

Something has gone wrong with the verbal communication of this play. Ben Johnson's work is famously difficult for the contemporary actor. "John Dryden confesses that I admire [Johnson], but I love Shakespeare..... Johnson has usually been regarded as pedantic, classical, satiric, Shakespeare as natural, accessible, romantic..... Johnson the scrupulous classicist, Poet, and disdainer of the 'public riot', Shakespeare the crowd pleasing professional and fluent writer. Shakespeare has the ease of narrative and character, Johnson contrarily works with a particular agenda of social exposure and builds his verse with a 'curt style': its phrasing comparatively 'staccato; virtually every line contains a midline pause, with some displaying multiple stops, and the pauses refuse to conform to a regular pattern,' unlike the Shakespeare fluidity." The strength of Johnson's agenda exerts such pressure on the verse that he rarely develops the rhythmic momentum or anything approaching a 'poetic' tone. The verse is unbalanced because the world that Johnson sees is unbalanced because his world view is tilted. Johnson works in a way to accumulate evidence for his characters satiric exposure, a kind of 'indiscriminate supplementarity'. It is a blunt listing and heaps the images on top of themselves in the verse. The style of speaking the Johnsonian text requires detailed thought on all its punctuation. Johnson was famously pedantic with his printers. Although this company reveals an intelligence about meaning it does not detail the voluptuous speeches with sufficient pausal accuracy. It is interesting to read that the midline pauses in Johnson's verse plays is vastly greater than in Shakespeare's. THE ALCHEMIST, for example, contains over 5,000 stops in about 3,000 lines of verse. For Shakespeare, on the other hand, the highest number of stops occurs in CYMBELINE, about 3,100 stops in 2,600 lines of verse. This company of actors gallop at such a fluent speed that I found, and my audience around me, found it almost impenetrable to catch. It was as if there was a glass wall between us and the actors. We were forced to watch. We were never encouraged to listen. The language of this play is so dense that without that invitation and hospitality from the performers it fails to communicate except in generalities. There is a need to have a particular approach to this verse structure that is very different to that in approaching Shakespeare's verse.

The other difficulty seems to me a general lack of musicality in the basic instruments of the leading actors. Mr Tighe is an actor of high intellectual acumen and a physical skill of great flexibility and agility but the sound of his voice lacks the range of expression to accommodate the demands of the text of Face/Jeremy without wearing us out. All the actors suffer this lack of a technical imaginative vocal range to illustrating the verse. Mr Dickson as Subtle is a case in point. Meaning is obviously present but the means to communicate the huge verse responsibility is not solved with enough variety of attack to keep the audience from indifference. Mr Whitney moves best to the use the vocal musicality and intelligence to present "Dishes of agate, set in gold, and studded / With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies." but when he tires of the density and the problem of the text he rather solves it with a physical comedy gesture and underlines the glorious verbosity of his character which is the principal tool of Johnson's satire of Mammon.

This choice of the orchestrated sound for this great work is odd. The great problem with the Bell HAMLET last year was similarly about vocal musicality for a modern audience of the majority of the instruments cast in the roles. It certainly is a puzzlement with a company dealing consistently with heightened language of an almost archaic vocabulary and mode of expression.

This production was played for 2 hours and 20 odd minutes without interval. A wise decision for otherwise some of us may not have seen how it ended. The obvious Alchemist of this production is Mr Bell who persuaded us, the audience, to sit still and endure the night. How polite we Australian audience's are, for this was truly a tedious and exhausting night in the theatre.

Playing in Sydney now until the 18 April, followed by shows in Canberra and Perth. Book online or call the Sydney Opera House box office on 02 9250 7777, Canberra Ticketing on 02 6275 2700 or Perth's BOCS Ticketing on 08 9484 1133.

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