Saturday, November 18, 2006

Theatre Review : The Alchemist by Ben Jonson - Olivier (dir Nicholas Hytner 02/10/06)

This had all the pieces in place - a text by Ben Jonson, one of the best directors of our time in Nicholas Hytner, and Alex Jennings and the sainted Simon Russell Beale (not to mention the excellent Lesley Manville) in the lead roles. So why didn't it quite work?

It certainly wasn't a failure. Jonson is an amusing writer, and the play lends itself well to high farce. Jennings and Russell Beale worked hard and produced some highly amusing moments. Hytner used the Olivier's revolving stage to full advantage (although to have the actors come onstage in vision of the audience to go up an external fire-escape to make an entrance from the upstairs of the Alchemist's house was clumsy).

The fault is that of Jonson. His prose is more knotted and convoluted than that of Shakespeare so it is less easy to slip into its rhythms. And the plot is overtly satirical, taking potshots at many 17th Century targets such as London's swindlers, whores, foreigners and puritans. Whilst good knockabout fun, satire doesn't travel well and the play has little profound to say beyond some cheap topical gags - which leaves one who is more used to the richly-leavened Shakespearean fare feeling as if one wants some more.

You certainly couldn't fault the acting. Alex Jennings is a master of this high camp, and Simon Russell Beale, amongst his many other attributes, shows fine comedy timing. Lesley Manville is also a fine comic actor, and by no means out of place in this august company. But this array of talent onstage merely adds to the disappointment that the whole piece simply never catches fire and leaves the audience with a sense of anticlimax.

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