Peter Sutton pulled The Alchemist off. That’s not the highest of praise, but it is worth something, in light of the difficulties the production went through. Starting with Ben Jonson’s notoriously complex narrative and language, they also faced the obstacle of losing a lead actress during the dress rehearsal. However, these difficulties reflected themselves in the polish and energy of the show.
Diction, for example, was shoddy from just about every one of the actors. During moments of excitement or anger, not just words, but whole lines and passages were lost to my ear, exacerbating attempts to understand what is already a hard text to follow. It seemed, at times, like the actors hadn’t been given any sort of vocal warm up.
Assistant Director Anna Jones performed admirably as the stand in actress for whore and con-woman Doll Common. Though her physicality was inspired and, impressively, she seemed to know most of her lines, her somewhat static delivery and, of course, the book in her hand revealed her status as outside the regular cast.
That said, her co-stars faced their own problems. Adam Spencer and Connor Powell played the ringmasters of the con act that drives the plot. To do that, they play many different roles, Powell’s Subtle becoming “Father” or “Doctor” as the situation demanded, while Spencer’s Face varied from “Captain” to “Lungs.” It was disappointing to see a lack of change in the characterization to match these changing roles, with only a different costume and a (too) thick accent to mark Lungs, while Powell usually offered nothing in way of change.
Among the ensemble, Tristram Saunders was a stand out, bringing tremendous vivacity to the embodiment of greed, Epicure Mammon. Similarly Jack Bates as Ananias the monk displayed an endlessly entertaining profile, with his cocked, constantly roving eye. What set them apart was that they were constantly reacting, using their own physical presence, which I would have liked to see from the rest of the cast.
The direction faced its own issues, making frustrating, but easily fixable, mistakes. Sutton, with producer Jo Boon, provided some interesting images, notably Saunders reduced to hopping with his trousers around his ankles and his hands, full of condoms, bound with his own belt. But they seemed ignorant of the Barron’s tricky sight lines, which meant that many characters, while kneeling or sitting, seemed to entirely disappear. Similarly, the scenes with stage fighting were unconvincing, and possibly should have been reworked.
The end result is a Renaissance comedy, that, while it gained energy measurably in the second half, dragged like a wheelbarrow with a flat tire. Certain bits were stellar: funny, witty and dynamic. But they seemed like diamonds in a rough, where the rough is stilted blocking, mumbled delivery, and convoluted plot. So while I do praise the team of The Alchemist when I say that they pulled it off, I can’t say much more than that in favor of the show.
Photos taken by Katie Brennan