A CO-PRODUCTION WITH
QUEENSLAND THEATRE COMPANY
BY BEN JONSON
DIRECTED BY JOHN BELL
WITH PATRICK DICKSON & ANDREW TIGHE
‘Vibrant ensemble romp… outstanding’
Sydney Morning Herald
While the cat’s away, the mice will play!
Lovewit leaves the city and a menagerie of shady characters – a conman, a hooker and one very bored domestic helper – takes over his home, creating hoopla for their own amusement and gain.
See Face, the servant, and his two friends, Subtle and Dol Common, juggle scams like plates on sticks! See them fend off suspicion with their wits brandished like swords! And witness, if you will, the alchemy of love and the world’s rightful order when the master returns to unravel the mayhem.
This is a show about the vices and vagaries of human nature, told through the antics of a trio of scammers including a charlatan disguised as an alchemist. Urban, fast-paced and vibrant, Ben Jonson’s greatest comedy revels in the zest for life among the bottom-feeders. Directed by John Bell, and featuring Patrick Dickson as Subtle and Andrew Tighe as Face, this is schtick in the city at its hardcore and hilarious best.
Bell Shakespeare’s 2009 production of The Alchemist played in Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney and Perth.
Director – John Bell
Designer – Bruce McKinven
Lighting Designer – Matt Scott
Assistant Director – Christina Koch
Fight Choreographer – Scott Witt
Subtle, the Alchemist – Patrick Dickson
Face, the Housekeeper – Andrew Tighe
Dol Common, their colleague – Georgina Symes
Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk – Bryan Probets
Abel Drugger, a tobacconist – Lucas Stibbard
Sir Epicure Mammon, a Knight – David Whitney
Surly, his friend – Sandro Colarelli
Ananias, a Deacon – Richard Sydenham
Tribulation Wholesome, a Pastor – Peter Kowitz
Kastril, the Angry Boy – Scott Witt
Dame Plaint, his sister – Liz Skitch
Lovewit, Master of the house – Russell Kiefel
18 May 2009
Bell rings out the laughs
I never expected an audience to laugh so hard or burst into so much spontaneous applause during the performance of an early 17th century play as it did on Friday night, when Perth theatre-goers were treated to Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson’s 1610 comic masterpiece The Alchemist in a dazzling new co-production by Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company.
Johnson’s main theme is our willingness to be deceived by con artists, and given recent events in the financial world it seems nothing’s changed.
Fearing an outbreak of the plague, Lovewit leaves his London residence in the hands of his servant Face, who together with dodgy alchemist Subtle and street-savvy whore Dol Common proceed to dupe a series of credulous clients: the card-playing lawyer’s clerk Dapper, who needs a lucky charm; Drugger the tobacconist, who’s after some feng shui-style architectural advice for a new shop; Sir Epicure Mammon, who wants the power to turn base metals into gold; ditto the Puritan Ananias; and Angry Boy Kastril, who’s keen on learning the “Art of Quarrelling”.
Ananias’ pastor Tribulation Wholesome and Kastril’s widowed sister Dame Pliant prove equally susceptible to the tricky trio’s chicanery. Only Mammon’s friend Surly sees through the smoke and mirrors, but his warnings go unheeded. In this hilarious, fast-paced production, set nowhere in particular but as imaginative and chaotic as the dramatic culture of the time, director John Bell and designer Bruce McKinven take their cue from Jonson’s mix of cockney slang and alchemical gibberish, as well as his delight in lampooning London life both high and low, to create a world in which obvious artifice is part of reality.
All the world, is indeed, a stage.
Before a big mirror in which the audience is also clearly reflected, and flanked on one side by a clothes rack on which hangs the production’s array of superb costumes, on the other by a prompter seated at a desk with headset and script, the various characters swindle, fight and cajole their way through two hours of side-splitting comic action. Patrick Dickson as Subtle is both repulsive and engaging in his filthy pyjama pants and undershirt, while Andrew Tigh brings the right balance of menace and slapstick to the character of Face.
The leggy Georgina Symes is outrageous as the Amy Winehouse-lookalike Dol Common; likewise David Whitney as the obese, disgusting Mammon, his character recalling Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s film The Meaning of Life.
Bryan Proberts and Lucas Stibbard are suitably gormless as Dapper and Drugger; Sandro Colarelli’s transformation of Surly from a country gent into a Spanish Don is a real hoot. Scott Witt and Russell Kiefel as Kastril and Lovewit nicely come across as East End spivs with their fur coats and geezer personas, while Liz Skitch as Dame Pliant is a ditzy Paris Hilton.
If Peter Kowitz if part-Amish, part-American evangelical preacher as Tribulation Wholesome, it’s the tight-suited Richard Sydenham who shines the spotlight on our own religious and political environment, his Ananias a formidable combination of John Howard, George Pell and Tony Abbott.
Ben Jonson might not be Shakespeare but he’s a hell of a lot funnier, and I for one will be catching this brilliant production of The Alchemist before it closes.
The Canberra Times
2 May 2009
Play reflects modern drama
For Ben Jonson’s contemporary William Shakespeare, all the world was a stage. In Johnson’s The Alchemist, the stage is all the world. Or, at least, the world as we know it today.
Few plays outside those of Shakespeare express the elusive property of timelessness – not merely the requisite death and quality to warrant regular revivals, but that stunning and rare capacity to interlock with the cycle of history (how many times has Romeo and Juliet been modernised to comment on war, or ganglands?)
Though a tier below the Bard as a storyteller and succinct observer of human behavior, Jonson wielded great power and range as a writer, and in The Alchemist created a work that director John Bell aims squarely at the present economic debacle.
This Bell Shakespeare/Queensland Theatre Company co-production isn’t happening because the play hasn’t been done for a while.
It presents an urgent and salient commentary on out times.
Bumbling shysters Face (Andrew Tighe), Subtle (Patrick Dickson) and Dol Common (Georgina Symes) meddle in science, artifice and farcical subterfuge hoping to rob unsuspecting customers often motivated by the chance of a buck, no questions asked.
The three take over the house when Face’s boss, Lovewitt (Russell Kiefel), skips town.
Subtle dons an alchemist’s hat, Dol spread-eagles herself over whomever she can and Face keeps the charade going with fathomless energy and false smiles. Whole lines lifted from this play could describe a collapsing bank or a Ponzi scheme.
“Much company they draw, and much abuse, in casting figures, telling fortunes, news, selling of flies … till it, and they, and all in fume, are gone.” Pretty soon a kaleidoscope of takers spills into the house: lawyers clerk Dapper (Bryan Probets); tobacco seller Abel Drugger (Lucas Stibbard); portly lothario Sir Epicure Mammon (David Whitney) and his quizzical sidekick Surly (Sandro Colarelli); jockey-like thug Kastril (Scott Witt) and his ditzy sister Dame Pilant (Liz Skitch).
Ananais the deacon (Richard Sydneham) and Texan-accented pastor Tribulation Wholesome (Peter Kowitz) ensure religion isn’t spared the lashing of Jonson’s wit.
When the verbose Mammon enters at the start of Act II, the production’s earnest beginnings are firmly consigned to history and the playwright’s clever gameplay springs to life.
“Do you think I fable with you?” he swoons, before announcing his desires “a list of wives and concubines equal with Solomon”.
Kastril shows up hoping to learn how to fight, and prances about in a costume that places him somewhere between Ali G and Darren Beadman. In this role Witt does an excellent job, perfectly cast alongside Skitch who blinks obtusely and shuffles about without a clue.
Bell has cast this production well. Less stylised than starkly simple, the story is told through confident performances and the telling comfort of a peek behind the curtain.
A design by Bruce McKiven, with exposed scaffolding, backstage areas and racks of costumes and mirrors in full view, helps to exaggerate the theme of illusion.
It is Whitney who draws the most humour from Jonson’s language, and balances the sometimes competing aims of comedy and plot construction. The reverse of this occurs in some later scenes, where smaller parts are often doomed to exposition rather than flouncing around and drawing laughs.
Speaking of laughs, there are perhaps fewer than the program would indicate, but it doesn’t matter – those that are there simply enhance the joy of good writing performed as it should be. “Good Father, there was no unchaste purpose” cries an undressed Mammon, shortly after being discovered with an equally disrobed Dol, who tries to take him for everything, including his half-eaten fish.
In a part with enough dialogue for a play of its own, Tighe plays Face with precision and steadiness. “Nothing’s as wretched as a guilty conscience” he says, exhausted, at the play’s end. The play’s baffling circuitry may have exhausted him, and us, but it was worth it.
29 March 2009
Truly golden fleeces
Whether their racket is fake Nigerian trust funds, the promise of eternal youth or the chance to earn a quick buck, confidence tricksters intrigue us as we watch gullible fools fall victims to their schemes.
Just switch on A Current Affair for proof. But it’s far less funny when you’re the one who gets caught.
Despite the title, Ben Jonson’s 1610 play, The Alchemist, is less about alchemy and more about the way rip-off merchants get amongst almost anyone to part with their money in exchange for tantalising hope of riches. Wall Street shows us not much has changed in 400 years.
Lovewit, master of the house (Rssel Kiefel), is taking a sojourn to the country, leaving the housekeeper, Face (Andrew Tighe), his friend Subtle, the alchemist (Patrick Dickson) and saucy seductress Dol Common (Georgina Symes) with an opportunity to use the house as a base to run their racket.
From here they set about conning every soul they can lay their hands on. First there’s Dapper, a lawyers clerk (Bryan Probets); the local tobacconist, Abel Drugger (Lucas Stibbard); Sir Epicure Mammon, a bright-eyed knight (David Whitney); the gothic-looking deacon (Richard Sydenham); and the angry young Kastril (Scott Witt), decked out in his bling and oversized skater shoes.
Each queues up in a Mark Latham like conga line of suckholes believing the fantastical and whimsical promises of Face and his gang of three. Enter Surly (Sandro Caolarelli), the one person who can see through the masquerade and who attempts to undo their plot.
The brilliance of Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, is that his comedy portrays the failings of humanity with such life-like characteristics.
The Alchemist is written in such an over-the-top and melodramatic way it makes delicious material for the actors, allowing them to dive head first into the caricatures and the wit.
Director John Bell unleashes his cast and lets them rule the stage with a strut and playfulness. It is hard not to be caught up in the childlike antics of the rascals.
The physical and lyrical gags come fast as the performers do their best to outdo each other in a display the likes of which is rarely seen in theatre today.
29 March 2009
Greed’s a laughing matter
A fool and his money are soon parted, as the saying goes. The modus operandi may have changed since 1610 when Ben Jonson wrote his satirical comedy about greed gullibility and deceit but little else has. For every suckers there’s still a scammer ready to take him to the cleaners.
The Alchemist centres on the shenanigans of three con artists. When Lovewit (Russell Kiefel) leaves London to escape the plague, his butler (Andrew Tighe) installs partners-in-crime Subtle (Patrick Dickson) and the aptly named Dol Common (Georgina Symes) in his master’s house.
With Subtle posing as an alchemist able to turn base metal into gold among other wonders, the shysters set about fleecing a parade of all-too-obliging victims.
Though the play’s themes are as relevant as ever, John Bell’s contemporary production takes time to get airborne and is only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Bell and designer Bruce McKinven set the action in a rehearsal room with a rear mirror, a rack of mismatched costumes from which the actors grab their disguises, and the assistant stage manager visible in the corner.
The terrific cast perform with gusto, creating a menagerie of larger-than-life comic characters. Tighe and Dickson are splendid in the central roles while Symes brings a touch of Amy Winehouse to Dol Common.
David Whitmey is hilariously gross as the greedy fop Sir Epicure Mammon. Kiefel is also outstanding playing Lovewit as a spivvy wheeler-dealer with a machine gun laugh.
Some scenes feel labored, bogged down by the language and the mechanics of the plot. The production doesn’t quite fly, but it’s still fun.
25 March 2009
Chemistry and polish prove a delight
When John Bell launched the 2009 Bell Shakespeare Company program, he promised a series of bright, funny productions to pull theatre-lovers from the dark depths of the global financial crisis, and this colourful and silly production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is an excellent start.
First performed in 1610, Bell has waved a contemporary wand over the production, making it zippy and surprisingly relevant.
When fear of the plague forces his master Lovewit (Russell Kiefel) to flee the city, the butler Face (Andrew Tighe) wastes no time joining forces with his mate Subtle (Patrick Dickson) and their saucy wench Dol Common (Georgina Symes) to hatch a grand plan to swindle a string of gullible fools.
With Subtle posing as an alchemist possessing magical powers, the trio successfully scam money and valuable from a tobacconist (Lucas Stibbard), a legal clerk (Bryan Probets), a religious deacon (Richard Syndenham) and his zealous sidekick (Peter Kowitz), a knight (David Whitney) and his friend Surly (Sandro Colarelli).
The situation starts to tangle with the introduction of the wealthy and desirable, but simple, widow Dame Pilant (Liz Skitch), who is jealously guarded by her angry brother (Scott Witt). When Face’s master unexpectedly returns home, the entire scheme threatens to collapse into a messy heap.
Tighe and Dickson bring joyful energy to their characters and to the act of extortion, while Symes channels Amy Winehouse and invests Dol with charismatic wickedness.
The strength of this production lies with the quality of the ensemble, who enthusiastically bond together under Bell’s confident direction, highlighted by Bruce McKinven’s bohemian design, turning this story of deception and fraud into a rollicking comedy.
Sydney Morning Herald
25 March 2009
I think … therefore I scam
The currency of Ben Jonson’s broad and bawdy satire of city life circa 1610 is still good 400 years on. Then as now, a mug is born every minute, and a queue of Ponzi schemers, email scammers and astrologically inspired finance gurus are ready to bilk ‘em for their last farthing.
The action, farcical, most of it – takes place in the London townhouse of Master Lovewit (Russell Kiefel), who recently decamped to the countryside for fear of the plague. His manservant Jeremy, AKA Face (Andrew Tighe), is left behind to look after the place. Instead he sets up a swindling “venture tripartite” with the con artists Subtle (Patrick Dickson) and Dol Common (Georgia Symes) to part as many “gulls” from their money as they can before Lovewit returns.
This co-production between Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare is a lot funnier than many would expect.
Bruce McKiven’s set pushes backstage to the fore with costume racks, mirrors, plastic cups and a tatty green room sofa attesting to the theatricality of the swindler’s game (and the naivety of their victims).
Director John Bell’s cast seldom put a foot wrong (except for Scott Witt, who makes a running joke out of it) and all the characters are precisely drawn, helped greatly by McKiven’s witty grab-bag of costumes: Dapper (Bryan Probert), a gambler seeking help to widen his lucky streak; a reeky breathed tobacconist, Abel Drugger (Lucas Stibbard); a pair of scheming Puritans (Peter Kowitz and Richard Sydenham) shepherded to the conclusion that counterfeiting is not against God’s law; an East End wide boy, Katril (Witt), chasing gentlemanly airs while pimping his wealthy widow sister Dame Pliant (Liz Skitch) to the highest bidder.
The biggest “gull” of all though is David Whitney’s monstrous Sir Epicure Mammon, a painted pot-bellied sensualist who lust for gold, food and women leads him to reject the advice of his cynical minder, Surly (Sandro Colarelli), and blow his fortune sky high.
The assistant stage manager Jennifer Buckland is visible throughout, providing sound effects with a mallet, smiling broadly and sometimes laughing out loud, suggesting (unless we’re being had) that there’s a deal of spontaneity built into the show.
All make light work of Jonson’s knotty rhythms and slangy poetry in this vibrant ensemble romp – Dickson, Tighe, Whitney, Symes and Kiefel are outstanding – and a potentially daunting two hours 10 minutes fairly zips by.
21 March 2009
Open your purse and say after me “help yourself”
There’s one born every minute, apparently, so how many greedy and/or naive types have been gulled by shysters since Ben Jonson’s play was first staged in 1610 would be mind-boggling to calculate. (Ideas anyone?) And being led a merry dance by grifters, cheats, conmen, tricksters, frauds, hornswogglers, mountebanks, flimflammers and sharks – among others – is both as old as the hills and as new as the latest scam.
And la! Here’s one: just plopped into the inbox:
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Hope to read from you as soon as possible. Regards, Barrister Jerry West, United Kingdoms International Lottery.
If you’d like Barrister Jerry’s email address, just ask. It’s a hotmail tag in Hong Kong, but no matter. Meanwhile, back in 1610, Barrister Jerry’s rather wittier and more imaginative forebears were hard at work.
Ben Jonson’s satire on greed and gullibility is as fresh as the day it first appeared in Elizabethan London in John Bell’s vivacious production. In keeping with a play about smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand, the pace is relentless and the choreographed physicality of the action such that any faltering or mistiming would bring the whole thing crashing to its knees. But so assured is the cast and so on top of their form are Andrew Tighe (Face, the butler) and Patrick Dickson (Subtle the alchemist) in particular, as the two gullers-in-chief, that two hours seems hardly long enough to spend in their company.
The collaboration with QTC also brings some welcome new faces to Sydney, in particular Georgina Symes as the conmen’s accomplice and squeeze, Doll Common. She looks like Amy Winehouse’s slightly less disastrous sister and is a skinny powerhouse of attitude and concentration. Similarly Liz Skitch in a couple of roles including the pert and pretty heiress, Dame Pliant, lights up the stage with laughter when she appears, despite the considerable hindrance of her bling-laden, yo-bro brother Kastril (Scott Witt).
There is also a new crop of Bell-favourite geek boys in the show: actors who aren’t shy about looking as silly or awful as a role requires: Bryan Probets and Lucas Stibbard as two of the dupes, Dapper and Abel Drugger, do more with dandruff, credulity and nasty personal habits than is fair on a fastidious and laugh-aching modern audience. At the other end of the scale, handsome Sandro Colarelli is equally preposterous as the popinjay Surly, whether got up like a dandy or in some loose approximation of a matador’s outfit. (Don’t ask, go see it.)
In essence, Subtle, Face and Doll set out to relieve their fellow Londoners of as much loot and dosh as possible during the absence of Subtle’s master when plague threatens the city. They use his mansion as the honeypot for a series of schemes that flatter and prey on the weaknesses and greed of each mark. While Subtle and Face work the schemes, Doll entraps such worthies as Sir Epicure Mammon (splendid David Whitney in a grotesque fat suit and absurd wigs) and generally keeps her men in order.
The master, Lovewit, (Russell Kiefel) is a sharp looking gent who wouldn’t be out of place in Underbelly, so when he returns unexpectedly from the country all is skittled. Nevertheless, moral certainties were as fluid in the 1600s as they are now and the final wash-up is a further twist of fate for the shysters. Although no thanks to the efforts of the religious worthies Ananias (Richard Sydenham) and Pastor Tribulation (Peter Kowitz), whose wild-eyed fundamenalism is as ghastly as it is funny.
The design is credited solely to Bruce McKinven (with lighting by Matt Scott) and the whole is wonderful. There is a kaleidoscopic array of costumes with no unifying or historical theme except they suit the characters and add immensely to the fun and spectacle. The staging is simple: a few bits of furniture, plus racks of clothes and a mirrored rear wall where the audience can see itself laughing and watching others do all the dopy things we do every day.
In keeping with the nothing-hidden (except everything, of course) theme of the tricksters, assistant stage manager Jennifer Buckland is on stage throughout and integral to the action. A lot of banging on doors requires her to belt a hammer on her table at frequent intervals and it’s a lovely touch in a production of lovely touches. For lots of reasons but particularly if you’re thinking of responding to Mrs Lovepeace Constanzia’s overture to help her give you some of her late husband’s multi-million dollar fortune because she’s dying of cancer and he was assassinated, may he rest in peace, it would be a good idea to go see The Alchemist.
2 March 2009
Self-advancement blinds the greedy
THEY say there are none so blind as those who will not see, and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is a play intended to prove that the desire for self-advancement can blind the greedy and the gullible to even the most egregious of scams.
This is a co-production from the Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare, following last year’s Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome. Again, it’s a lot of fun, albeit fun of an entirely different sort to last year’s bloody battle for power.
Written four centuries ago, The Alchemist, under John Bell’s able directorial hand, is an accessible and at times hilarious comic piece.
The plot follows the fortunes of Subtle, Face and Dol Common, a trio of con artists who ply the metaphysical trade as a surprisingly simple way of separating people from their money. Their “marks” are recognisable London types, willing to believe in Subtle’s power – and take part in ridiculous and humiliating rituals – if it will win them luck, love or money.
Bell’s production calls heavily on metatheatrical conventions. The actors and stage managers watch from the side, and there is a mirror to the rear. These devices are designed to remind the audience of the unconvincing, ad hoc nature of the conspirators’ artifice as they switch costumes, characters and confidence tricks to perpetrate their fanciful swindles.
The cast carries the comic turns of the plot with skill.
Patrick Dickson as Subtle, Andrew Tighe as Face and Georgina Symes as Dol bring the right balance of comic mischief and cynical bemusement.
Their victims push the comedy to the heights of ridiculousness. There are some wonderfully over-the-top moments from David Whitney as the lecherous Sir Epicure Mammon, pursuing the philosopher’s stone with false piety while indulging in pleasures of the flesh.
Bryan Probets is the excruciatingly eager clerk Dapper; Lucas Stibbard the greasy, dim-witted tobacconist Abel Drugger; Richard Sydenham the stiffly upstanding Deacon Ananais; Liz Skitch the vapid widow Dame Pliant; and Scott Witt her wannabe gangster-boy brother Kastril
The Courier Mail
27 February 2009
John Bell turns Alchemist into golden performance
POSTERITY has not dealt as kindly with renowned brawler and boaster Ben Jonson as it has with his contemporary, William Shakespeare.
His works have often failed to enter the popular imagination.
His tragedies have faded into obscurity and it is only his comedies that are occasionally revived, notably Volpone, Bartholemew Fair and The Alchemist.
But the recent success of The Alchemist at London’s Royal Court, starring Simon Callow, may have motivated John Bell to resurrect the play with QTC, and under his unerring direction you can see why Coleridge described it as one of the three best plots ever devised. It may also be a play whose time has come. Anyone who has ever been emailed by a Nigerian millionaire dying to share his loot will know that suckers are born every day.
The premise is simple enough. A trio of shysters comprising a butler taking advantage of his employer’s absence, a con man who says he can change base metals into gold and a sharp-witted whore preside over a series of elaborate attempts to part gullible suckers from their money. Andrew Tighe as the butler, Patrick Dickson as the Alchemist and Liz Skitch as the lady of easy virtue head a cast who take the action to the level of dangerous circus performance. Timing is everything and this production speeds like an arrow through two hours of non-stop mayhem. Bell draws great performances from his actors, and makes the text, full of Elizabethan jargon, accessible. He lets Jonson’s plot work its way from anarchy to perfectly distilled conclusion.