As one of Ben Jonson’s most famous plays, standing alongside Volpone as one of his comic masterpieces, The Alchemist has enjoyed a wide and varied performance history since its Oxford premiere in 1610. Oxford University Drama Society’s summer production, currently running at Freud’s bar in Jericho, brings the play back to its original home in a new, tightly edited version. The production did not fail to deliver on its promise of being ‘Condensed and performed at breakneck speed’, running at only two hours long and eliminating the more peripheral characters, the Puritan duo Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, to provide a slick and fast-paced evening of entertainment.
The greatest attribute of this production was its slapstick humour, the more bawdy elements accentuated from the outset. Howard Coase and Leo Suter somewhat stole the show, with Coase shining as Dol Common (particularly in his brief cameo as the Fairy Queen), whilst Suter’s performance as Subtle was continuous fun with a formidable variety of accents and comic guises. The initiation of Dapper (played by Helena Wilson) was a clear highlight of the evening, brilliantly foregrounding Jonson’s caustic mockery of the gullible and greedy, as did Mammon’s (Connie Greenfield) downfall due to sexual avarice.
Unfortunately, these performances were sometimes undermined by the acoustic, which was far too resonant for the speed of the dialogue. Obviously, as a touring production, the staging and design has to be able to adapt to various different settings, and the small set worked well by contributing a sense of claustrophobia that only added to the on-stage mayhem. In Freud’s, however, the surrounding space meant that many of the finer points of the script were lost to a continuous wash of sound (often exacerbated by musical underscoring), often making the play somewhat difficult to follow. Laughs from fart jokes and sexual humour abounded, but any wordplay or more verbally-based jocularity was unable to be heard.
Lack of subtleties aside, however, OUDS’s Alchemist tore along at a fantastic pace; this is no moral comedy but a true farce, exposing the very worst of mankind’s weaker elements. Face, Dol, and Subtle never really receive a true comeuppance for their wrongdoings, and Face’s eventual desertion of his friends to cooperate with the canny Lovewit only suggests that the two-faced precedent set by Jonson’s trio of tricksters will continue after the curtain falls. There is much to commend this energetic production, and it provided a thoroughly enjoyable evening of irreverent and memorable performances.
The Alchemist is showing at Freud’s bar in Oxford until the 17th July; it will then travel to Edinburgh. More information and tickets are available from the production’s website.