Nicholas Hytner’s smartly updated production of “The Alchemist” — the latest in the National Theater’s Travelex £10 season — is a giant con. And that’s a compliment. It’s hard to think of a cast that could better Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale and Lesley Manville as Subtle, Face and Doll Common, the arch-swindlers of Ben Jonson’s linguistically extravagant 1610 satire of bare-faced greed and duplicity. Precision is the hallmark of Hytner’s style and that’s exactly what’s needed — and achieved — with this presentation of a famously rich text. That’s not to say Jonson’s language is forbiddingly high-flown. Is there another play whose second line is, “I fart at thee?”
Where most directors would immediately launch into the opening tirade of insults between the co-conspirators, Hytner opts for silence. Seen initially at the breakfast table wearing modern-dress dirty undershirt, dressing gown and skimpy kimono, the three plotters’ malevolent looks and frosty behavior fill the theater with a tangible unspoken fury that charges up the ensuing row.
From there on in, the fraudsters set about their nefarious business with zeal. Face (Russell Beale), housekeeper to Lovewit (John Burgess), has taken advantage of his master’s absence from town to set up a series of elaborate scams to fleece his fellow Londoners. He has persuaded a list of men that Subtle (Jennings) is an alchemist whose mysterious powers can solve all their problems and even turn base metal into gold … for the right price
First up is a clerk (venal but nicely naive Bryan Dick) who wants to win at gambling. Then it’s tobacconist Abel Drugger, eager to make his business thrive. As played by lanky and sweetly nervy Amit Shah, the role is wittily re-imagined as an Indian shopkeeper, a transformation that springs directly from a textual reference to “my olive-colored skin.”
Tribulation Wholesome (Ian Barritt) and Ananias (Sam Spruell), the Anabaptists of Jonson’s original, are amusingly reinterpreted as smug, sandals-with-socks-wearing, born-again Christians. And Tristan Beint as Kastril, the “Angry Boy,” wins big laughs as a dim-witted, upper-class white toff trying and failing desperately to be young, black and cool.
The major character duped into parting with his money is Sir Epicure Mammon. Ian Richardson, a rich-toned actor who brilliantly savors every exquisitely chosen word like a wine connoisseur, has a field day with Mammon’s grandiosity, not by bejeweling the text, but by exercising restraint. That makes Mammon’s gleefully florid dreams of avarice an almost pornographic delight.
In order to juggle all these greedy fools lining up at the door, the three gamesters don different disguises and fake demeanors. The contemporary setting allows the production to score satirical points as all three race around doing quick changes in and out of Mark Thompson’s comically appropriate costumes. Better still, it serves vividly to underline the truly theatrical nature of the con: The perpetrators have to act.
Russell Beale swaggers as a gruff naval captain and hobbles about in welding gear and goggles using a silly Dutch accent as the Alchemist’s assistant Lungs. Manville ricochets between classes, going from whore to ’60s retro-chic via over-the-top Fairy Queen.
The prize, however, goes to Jennings, constantly switching between a plethora of superbly sustained characters. One minute he’s a dour, suited Scotsman, the next a pious, white-robed mystic. Best of all is his default position as a New Age guru in beads and a fluting voice not a million miles from Rufus Wainwright.
With so much talent harnessed to so boisterous a plot, the surprising thing about the production is its intermittent faltering momentum.
As the plots begin to collide, courtesy of the suspicions of Pertinax Surly (Tim McMullan, bringing the house down as a fake Spaniard in crotch-hugging satin), everything should begin to race. But with Russell Beale carefully revealing his every thought, the wind is occasionally taken out of the play’s sails.
Breaking the rhythm in this way also makes him seem a little distant from the other two con artists. In the final act, Jonson cunningly shows there’s no honor among thieves by having Face viciously turn the tables on his compatriots. But with Russell Beale already at one remove, some of the power of that plot twist is lost.
Despite that, Hytner’s exuberant production as a whole is so clear-eyed, and so successful at proving the shocking similarities between Jacobean and present-day society, that the satire comes up gleaming.