Left - David Whitney. Cover - David Whitney & Georgina Symes. Photo - Rob Maccoll
Two years in the wake of a grisly rendition of Macbeth that was dark, introspective and manic, this season, Bell, Australia's principal Shakespeare company, bounds onto the His Majesty's Theatre stage with Ben Jonson's celebrated comedy, The Alchemist.
It's certainly a change of pace - in the metaphorical sense at least - from the death and destruction that reign supreme in the bloody Scottish play. Velocity-wise, however, this production is as fast and frenetic as ever.
The Alchemist was written by Ben Jonson in 1610 and is considered, along with Volpone and Bartholomew Fair to be his best work. For those who aren't familiar with Jonson, he was a contemporary of Shakespeare himself, and of whom he was a constant critic and rival. The two spent much of their time locked in fervent debate and dispute and yet it was Jonson who gave Shakespeare his most enduring epitaph in, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Perhaps that gives you some sense of this writer's calibre.
If Shakespeare represented the popular mainstream of his own time, perhaps it could be said that Jonson wrote that period's equivalent of the festival film - the cult classic. As a brilliantly intellectual satirist he was unrelenting, angry and hilarious. (For some reason, the late American comedian and social critic Bill Hicks comes to my mind here, but hey, maybe that's just me.)
In The Alchemist, ostensibly about a servant and his cronies using their absent master's house and their own wits to comically defraud money from all and sundry, Jonson parodies all creeds and classes and no one, neither knight nor duke nor bawd is entirely safe from ridicule. It's daring, frightfully un-PC and incredibly funny, and it translates beautifully for a 21st Century audience.
Of course, much of this seamless transition can only be attributed to the deft touch of company founder, director and let's face it, Australian theatrical institution, John Bell. As his players come and go between racks of clothes, make-up mirrors and a stage manager in full view of the audience, Bell never lets us forgets where we are - in a theatre - and his reverence for the material and the craft is, as always, intensely palpable.
Under his watchful eye, the leads are a treat. Patrick Dickson plays the alchemist, Subtle, with glee; graceful and strutting like king, even, or maybe especially, whilst wearing a throw pillow for a hat. Georgina Symes as the aptly named Dol Common, is by turns high-born and whore, and irresistible as both. And Andrew Tighe as disobedient servant, Face, alternately aping the snobbish gentleman and capering like a mad jester, is a commanding presence and an audience favourite, providing commentary and cohesion throughout.
And when it comes to the varied and all-important supporting characters, all are crafted with precision. Bryan Probets and Lucas Stibbard as the clerk and the 'drugger' are adorably gormless in their grace and Scott Witt and Liz Skitch are spot-on as the wealthy but strangely chav-ish squire (think: slight touch of Ali G) and his eligible sister.
David Whitney is an absolute scream as the lascivious Sir Epicure Mammon, Sandro Colarelli's straight-man Surly and the apparently devilish Spanish duke are inspired and Richard Sydenham as the psychotically pious Ananias had me rolling in the aisles. Peter Kowitz and Russell Kiefel turn in classy performances as pastor Tribulation Wholesomeand master of the house Lovewit to aptly round out the performance.
While of course, his words on the timelessness of William Shakespeare have proven entirely true, it is also such a thrill to see that the brilliant work of the difficult, intellectual outsider Jonson also stands the test of time. I extend my congratulations to John Bell and company for this great production.
Want a slice of the kind of universal humour that reminds us in this age of easy isolation that even 400 years apart us humans still (and always will) have so much in common? Go and see The Alchemist.
His Majesty’s Theatre presents
a Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company co-production
by Ben Jonson
Directed by John Bell
Venue: His Majesty’s Theatre, 825 Hay St, Perth
Dates: 15 - 23 May
Bookings: BOCS Ticketing | www.bocsticketing.com.au