Sydney Opera House – Playhouse: The Alchemist

Ben Jonson's clever, ageless interpretation of The Alchemist playing at the Sydney Opera House - Playhouse, tells the tale of con artist Subtle (Patrick Dickson) and his friends and collaborators Face (Andrew Tighe) and Dol Common (Georgina Symes).
Sydney Opera House – Playhouse: The Alchemist
Sydney Opera House – Playhouse: The Alchemist Ben Jonson is nowhere near as famous as his contemporary William Shakespeare, yet this play which premiered almost 400 years ago in 1610 has seen an almost continual life on stage – apart from, perhaps not surprisingly, a period during the Victorian era. Jonson's clever, ageless story tells the tale of con artist Subtle (Patrick Dickson) and his friends and collaborators Face (Andrew Tighe) and Dol Common (Georgina Symes). When Face gains a position as the housekeeper of Lovewit (Russell Kiefel), a rich man who has left London for the countryside for fear of an outbreak of the plague, the three of them begin a merry game of scamming people out of their money through a variety of schemes – lucky charms, fortune telling, advice on what these days we would call Feng Shui and even promising Sir Epicure Mammon (David Whitney) the philosopher's stone to turn base metals into gold. A colourful parade of hapless victims eager to better their fortunes marches through Lovewit's house, each of them falling for the clever lies and disguises of this trio of con artists. There is Dapper (Bryan Probets), a clerk in ill-fitting clothes who dreams of winning big at the races, tobacconist Able Drugger (Lucas Stibbard) who seeks advice as to where to put doors and shelves in his new shop, and zealous deacon Ananias (Richard Sydenham), whose looks and bearing were intentionally (and to hilarious effect) based on the likes of John Howard, cardinal George Pell and Tony Abbott. The house itself consists of clothing racks full of costumes, many of them used in the play, as well as scaffolding and other props. A mirror in the background in which the audience can see themselves later serves as a blackboard for Subtle to write impressive formulas on. Scene changes as well as some costume changes all take place on the stage, symbolising the various faces these con artists present to their victims and serving as a reminder of how lazy and obvious these three have become in their trade. But because people want to believe in a better life, in turning lead into gold, in lucky charms and predictions of the future, Subtle, Face and Dol Common don't have to try all that hard. People see what they want to see – that is, except for Surly (Sandro Colarelli), Mammon's friend, who is skeptical from the beginning and even tries to expose the trio's sham by posing as a Spanish count seeking their help and advice. The clever stage design allows for a multitude of changes and different uses of the same setting, with the mirror becoming see-through at the end, when the con artists' victims have finally seen through the scams and schemes they have fallen prey to. The colourful costumes all stem from the existing stock of the theatre companies involved and embody the characters and their roles brilliantly, right down to the smallest details – such as Angry Boy Kastril's (fight choreographer Scott Witt) abundance of bling or the soft toy Dame Pliant (Liz Skitch), a naive, girly widow, is constantly holding in her gloved hands. While fire-and-brimstone Pastor Tribulation Wholesome (Peter Kowitz) displays a puritan look and American televangelist accent, Subtle looks like a mixture between an ageing hippie and the Dude from The Big Lebowski, giving the impression of scamming people in an extremely laid-back way. Once again, John Bell has proven his genius in bringing to life the plays of this era, getting to know the characters intimately and producing a modern version of The Alchemist that I'm sure Jonson himself would have adored. As usual with Bell Shakespeare, there is a lot of physical comedy going on as well, enhancing and complementing the lines, puns and often rude jokes of the original play. This is a perfect example of a modernisation that is done so subtly, so well and with such great understanding of the original text that the modern twists and allusions do not seem grafted onto the play but evolve naturally from the text itself. Bell's brilliant direction and great collaboration with designer Bruce McKinven, assistant director Christina Koch and head of wardrobe Gayle McGregor as well as the stellar cast bring the fun and boisterousness of the original play to life without hesitation or false modesty. The Alchemist is as perfect a piece of theatre as it gets, a joy to watch from beginning to end. Don't miss this! The Alchemist Venue: Sydney Opera House, Playhouse 18 March - 18 April Tickets: Adults $60, Concession $50, Optus Under 27 $30; Matinees (28 March, 4, 8, 11, 15, 18 April): Adults $55, Concession $48, Optus Under 27 $30

Elisabeth Meister

Monday 23 March, 2009

About the author

Elisabeth Meister is a Sydney-based translator and writer.