Biting and satirical, Ben Jonson’s expose of the human capacity for self-deception probably had Jacobean audiences rolling in the aisles. Today, too much exposure to arcane Jonsonian humour is likely to end up with just a couple of rows of smiley faces. Rather like the philosopher’s vinegar administered by the play’s central trio of tricksters, obscure Jacobean lingo is a mysterious brew.
Nicolas Tennant (Face), Joshua Higgott (Dapper), Ian Bartholomew (Subtle) and Lara Rossi (Dol) in The Alchemist at Liverpool Playhouse Photo: Tristram Kenton
Fortunately there’s no need for surtitles in order to get large doses of enjoyment from the opening production of the Playhouse’s new season. By giving the look and feel of the piece a contemporary tweak and by emphasising role-playing aspects of the dark art of quackery, director Robert Icke allows an inventive cast to simply have fun acting their socks off while tapping into the current climate of online scams and fairy tale get rich quickery.
From grubby joined-at-the-hip con artists Face (Nicolas Tennant), Subtle (Ian Bartholemew) and Dol Common (Lara Rossi), who pretend they have discovered the secret of transforming metal into gold, to the succession of dupes queuing up to part with their money, virtually everyone on stage dons some form of nifty disguise before the multiple frauds eventually spiral out of control.
Colin Richmond’s split-level backstage setting featuring a row of farce-like slamming doors complements the prevailing sense of playful theatricality. A cheeky choice of music, kicking off with There’s No Business Like Showbusiness, helps drive the production’s mad mix of conning and cash towards comic gold, even if Jonson’s antique language isn’t quite the full carat.