Siobhán McSweeney, Ken Nwosu and Mark Lockyer in The Alchemist. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC
When the cat's away, the mice will play - and boy, these mice are ready to put on quite a play. This season, the RSC sees Polly Findlay bring to live the Renaissance comedy The Alchemist by Shakespeare's near-contemporary, Ben Jonson. As the plague hits London, Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) skips town, leaving his mansion in the hands of his mischievous manservant Jeremy (Ken Nwosu) and his band of conniving friends.
Taking place in the Swan Theatre; the space at the RSC generally reserved for Shakespeare's contemporaries as Hamlet plays just across the hall, The Alchemist is an unmissable feature of the RSC's season.
The Alchemist is unique amongst the Renaissance plays in its totally contemporary setting. Whilst most of the bard's plays are set in historical England, The Alchemist is set in Blackfriars in the year it was written - 1610 - and its vivacious contemporary atmosphere is one of several reasons why 406 years later, this play translates brilliantly and transparently to today's audience.
As we enter the Victorian-Gothic theatre, the wonderful Jacobean set immediately thrusts us into the dark, smoky criminal underworld of 17th Century London where the play takes place.
The play launches into action with an original prologue, written by playwright Stephen Jeffreys, which is energetically and hilariously delivered by the production's three stand-out actors; Ken Nwosu as the conniving but hopeless manservant Jeremy, Mark Lockyer as Subtle - the brilliantly disastrous sham alchemist, and Siobhán McSweeney as the utterly lovable yet take-no-prisoners prostitute, Dol Common.
These three characters - the band of terribly hopeless criminals - are central to this calamitous farce, and maintain their comedy and energy expertly throughout the 2 hour and 20 minute production, as they are joined on stage by the "sober, scurvy set" of Londoners who they plan to con and swindle out of their money.
Beyond being ingeniusly funny, The Alchemist is a social comment on the levels of vanity which humanity is capable of. This group of scoundrels who have transformed their master's mansion into their criminal den, have no limit to the depth to which they will stoop, in order to trick some unsuspecting victim that Subtle is, in fact, a powerful alchemist. From convincing a naive tobacconist (charmingly portrayed by Richard Leeming) that he is a necromancer, to tricking a group of Anabaptists into believing that he has the philosophers stone - a magical transmuting stone that will turn any base metal into gold - Subtle's only magic qualities are in how good a con-man he is. RSC veteran Mark Lockyer plays the eponymous alchemist unashamedly, boldly and captivatingly, really breathing life into Jonson's charmingly vile con-artist.
Polly Findlay in her pacing and bold direction succeeds in bringing to light Jonson's clever parallels drawn between the world of alchemy, and Jacobean London. In an uncertain city, literally on the brink of demise, this play is about striving for change - just as the philosopher's stone is said to change the ordinary into gold, the lowly conmen aim to augment themselves, to climb the social ladder and become something wealthier and more powerful. Every scene in this play is rife with conflict; from the initial scene where Jeremy and Subtle bicker about shares of the profits, to the Anabaptists quarrelling over the legitimacy of alchemy; the friction and sparks generated by the reminds us of the intensity and often hilarious unpredictability of those at the bottom, in a city on the brink.
As we near the end of the play, the RSC's technical team really do bring out all the stops, to create some pretty spectacular stuff, which I'd rather not give away. The devised ending of the play is deeply clever, very funny, and does a marvellous job of bringing together the themes of trickery, false-play and humour, which drive this real gem of a piece.
So, whilst the philosopher's stone may ultimately be the stuff of legends, the RSC really has succeeded in created something genuinely golden in the Swan Theatre this season.