You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Alchemist

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 the arch-swindlers of Ben Jonson's linguistically extravagant 1610 satire of bare-faced greed and duplicity.

Subtle - Alex Jennings Face - Simon Russell Beale Doll Common - Lesley Manville Dapper - Bryan Dick Abel Drugger - Amit Shah Sir Epicure Mammon - Ian Richardson Pertinax Surly - Tim McMullan Tribulation Wholesome - Ian Barritt Ananias - Sam Spruell Kastril - Tristan Beint Dame Pliant - Elisabeth Dermot Walsh Lovewitt - John Burgess

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.

The Alchemist

Olivier National Theater; 1,127 Seats; £27.50 ($52) Top

Production: LONDON A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Ben Jonson. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Creative: Set and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Mark Henderson; original music, Grant Olding; sound, Rich Walsh; production stage manager, Sacha Milroy. Opened, reviewed Sept. 14, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Subtle - Alex Jennings Face - Simon Russell Beale Doll Common - Lesley Manville Dapper - Bryan Dick Abel Drugger - Amit Shah Sir Epicure Mammon - Ian Richardson Pertinax Surly - Tim McMullan Tribulation Wholesome - Ian Barritt Ananias - Sam Spruell Kastril - Tristan Beint Dame Pliant - Elisabeth Dermot Walsh Lovewitt - John BurgessWith: Sarah Annis, Natalie Best, Jason Cheater, Paul Chesterton, John Cummins, Simon Markey, Andrew McDonald.

More Legit

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content