The Alchemist | Queensland Theatre CompanyLeft - David Whitney

In John Bell's desperately-contemporary The Alchemist, the cult of modern fame and fortune apparently collide with 400-year-old ye'olde' English interplay.

Cunning conmen Subtle and Face set out to feed their insatiable greed by deceiving a cast of gullible misfits. With the help of trashed-up tramp Dol Common, complete with Amy Winehouse-like beehive do and groggy gait, they conjure up the lure of riches to tease and trick these gluttonous fools out of their pounds. Among them, a gambling-addicted lawyer, a tobacco merchant, a knight and a patently Corey Worthington-inspired boy-child and his spinster sister.

The stage - as naked, obviously, as the characters' ambitions with scaffolding and other behind-the-scenes glimpses - features an enormous mirror that projects the audience onto the stage and reflects, no doubt, that these are character traits we see in ourselves.

Yet it's all quite unrecognisable. Incomprehensible even, at least to this reviewer.

My confession: I don't enjoy Shakespearean theatre. Not in the slightest. Perhaps scarred by my enforced high school studies, I'm convinced the language is frustratingly elusive to all but ardent students of English theatre. To the untrained ear, Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist, first performed in 1610, shares all the same maddening hallmarks.

So it doesn't really matter how contemporary this co-production between the Bell Shakespeare National Touring Company and the Queensland Theatre Company is - it's supposedly biting satire is most often lost in translation.

There's some clue in the title: alchemy is a magical power or process for transforming common substances into goods of great value. In this case, Subtle and Face seem to convince their victims they can turn worthless metals into gold. What follows is a lot of colour and movement and melodrama; big speeches and bigger hand gestures. But I struggled to comprehend the laughs in the quick-fire byplay.

Typically, too, any subtleties in the performance (and there weren't many, with a big cast in suitably hammy voice) were lost in the cavernous Playhouse venue at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. And, frankly, to make an audience sit through a five-act, two-and-a-half-hour theatrical epic without an intermission break is inhuman.

The 12-strong cast, seasoned actors all who clearly relish the Jacobean farce, do inject humour through their bumbling physicality and flawless delivery. When not in scene the actors are stationed visibly in the wings, laughing and thigh-slapping along with the merriment, as if to queue the audience when the words are funny. It does help.

Snobbery aside, is this stuff really still accessible to your average theatre-goer? I can't be the only one...

A Queensland Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare co-production
The Alchemist
by Ben Jonson

Director: John Bell

Venue: Playhouse, QPAC South Brisbane
Dates: 26 February - 14 March
Times: Tue 6.30pm/Wed – Sat 7.30pm
Matinees: Wed 1.00pm/Sat 2.00pm
Tickets: Adults: $53-$63/Concession $40-$53/Under 30: $30
Bookings: QTIX 136246 or

National touring season: Also touring to Sydney, Canberra and Perth – see for more details

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