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AUTHOR: Ben Jonson
VENUE: Manoel Theatre
DATES: 6, 7, 8 February 2009
DIRECTOR: Polly March
CAST: Manuel Cauchi, Alan Paris, Edward Mercieca, Nanette Brimmer, Stefan Cachia Zammit, Philip Stilon, Malcolm Galea, Snits, Andrew Galea, Ruth Zammit, Clive Piscopo, Marie-Claire Pisani, Michael Zammit Maempel, Narcy Calamatta, Matthew Scurfield, Angele Galea, Ronnie Briffa, Naomi Piscopo
SUMMARY: Subtle, Face and Dol are three rogues who take possession of a rich man’s house to swindle rich men out of their businesses. They promise eternal youth to one, a Fairy Godmother to the next, and so on. Sadly, on one occasion, all their customers come to the house at the same time and the trio must do their best to keep them apart.
What the papers said:
HAVING been to the Manoel Theatre to watch Unifaun Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist last weekend, I was left with mixed feelings. Early seventeenth century drama was already experimenting with various genres when The Alchemist was first staged in 1610. In his capacity as James I’s preferred writer of court masques, Jonson was at the height of his career when the Renaissance notion of man being at the centre of all things started to be questioned by cynics as a conceit of aggrandizement. This did nothing but tarnish man’s already weak reputation as a flawed creature.
Jacobean drama of this kind was fast becoming popular as an exponent of the many vices of society at the time, but it is not entirely correct to consider The Alchemist as a conventional satire as it is far too expository and candid in its development so that its intentions are laid bare at the onset. The satirical commentary in the script is about as subtle as the blatant and very topical jibe in the programme about the apparent lewdness and censorship of another of Jonson’s plays.
Consequently, I feel that although it does have certain satirical qualities and may have been intended as a jocose form of social commentary, it still tends to rely strongly on its high comedic value and, at times, repetitive plot structure, to bag the majority of laughs from the audience.
The concept of having a local backdrop with projections of Valletta architecture was, according to director Polly March’s note, a joint effort between herself and set designer Pierre Portelli: “to find a metaphor for the events of the play and to underline the use of the fantastical and inflated language that occurs”, creating an idea of being “overlooked”, which in turn becomes “conscience”, or “under the eye of God”. In itself, the choice of such a metaphor is elegant and laudable, but highlighting the play’s rhetoric is simply not enough, as it only serves to detach the audience further from the linguistic medium. Modern dress and scenery does not bridge the very deep chasm between the intricacies of the imagery and the complexity of language, and the audience’s evident lack of understanding of it. It is one thing to read and study a play of this kind at one’s own leisure and in the comfort of one’s own study; it is another to attempt to grapple with the fast-paced comedic action which takes place concurrently with such cumbersome prose.
The play was in fact successful in putting across its message due to the sheer physicality which it entails as well as the actors’ accurate pacing, and so it became more of a visual sequence relying on its actors’ energy rather than a combination of script and interpretation. It styled itself as a ribald romp in which a group of three ne’er-do-wells played by Edward Mercieca, Nanette Brimmer and Alan Paris turn into con-artists and attempt to scam a series of characters out of their money by playing to their various weaknesses and manipulating them. Coleridge described the plot as being one of the most perfect of its time because it follows the classical unities of time, place and space accurately – working in a linear way, occurring in the same place and ending on the same day as it started. However, it is important to note that it might be rather tedious for each scam, although slightly modified, to follow the same basic idea.
Mr Mercieca plays Jeremy, a scheming steward to Matthew Scurfield’s Lovewit, who invites a bawd, Dol Common, energetically interpreted by Ms Brimmer, and his friend Subtle, flamboyantly portrayed by Mr Paris, posing as the eponymous alchemist, into his master’s house. The main leads all did an admirable job in interpreting stereotypical character traits mired in an over-enthusiastic sea of words.
Together they prey on their victims’ greed for wealth and in so doing, put their own infinitesimally larger lust for wealth into focus.
I particularly liked Manuel Cauchi’s interpretation of Sir Epicure Mammon as a miserly, money-hungry knight, whose desire for the vast wealth promised by the philosopher’s stone, as well as his lust for Dol Common’s contrivance of a slightly crazed, puritanical lady shows him up as the shallow man that he is. His friend, Surly, played by an excellent Stefan Cachia Zammit, is the only character who manages to see through the scoundrels’ scam and does all that is in his power to expose their sneaky game, but is foiled along the way, showing perhaps, that even the best intentioned are at times victims of the unfairness of human greed.
Philip Stilon shone as blinkered bigot, Ananais, an Anabaptist deacon preaching fire-and-brimstone and raging against the corruption of the world is exposed as a hypocritical schemer himself wanting to counterfeit gold coins to finance a campaign of conversion.
Andrew Galea and Ruth Zammit played siblings Kastril and Dame Pliant who were both duped along with Malcolm Galea’s naïvely likable Drugger and Snits’ frustratingly oblivious Dapper.
These four made a good supporting cast, although the latter’s lines were virtually unintelligible. Quality actors and sound direction could not, however, be entirely redemptive and the Jonsonian version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels left me feeling uncomfortably dissatisfied.
André Delicata - The Times Weekender Saturday, February 14, 2009
Cheats and Dupes
One of the masterpieces of Britain’s Jacobean theatre, The Alchemist (Unifaun at the Manoel) has finally become known to Maltese audiences. Ben Jonson, who wrote it in 1610, was not a supreme great like his contemporary Shakespeare,whom he much admired, but he was a very accomplished master of dramatic structure and a pungent satirist of the London society for which he wrote.
The plot is based on the grand plot of a base but impressively energetic trio to con as many people as possible in a short while and then decamp with what they hope will be considerable spoils. Subtle is a twister with a considerable knowledge of the pseudoscience of alchemy, in the 17th century perhaps at its peak, the main aim of whichwas to produce the philosopher’s stone, a substance capable of changing all metals into gold.
He teams up with Face (an assumed name, his real name, as we discover at the close, being Jeremy) who looks after the London house of Lovewit, who is away from London and who allows Subtle and his mistress, Doll Common (a prostitute) to use Lovewit’s house as a place for fraudulent activities in which Face himself is an active participant. They manage to gull a number of people, the most important of whom is the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon, whose greed for great wealth makes him give Subtle great sums of money for the elaborate experiments that will, he is assured, produce the philosopher’s stone.
Much less well-off are Dapper, a lawyer’s clerk who seeks a familiar spirit that will allow him to triumph at all sorts of gaming activities, Abel Drugger, a tobacconist who seeks esoteric advice to make his business very profitable, Kastril, described by the dramatist as an “angry boy” who wants to learn infallible techniques to win all the quarrels in which he so much delights, and two Puritan clergymen, Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, whose declared holiness does not prevent them from wanting to make large sums of money and even counterfeit money.
Closely allied with greed for money in the play is lust, and it is by playing on Mammon’s lustful desires that the trio cheat him, Though he is told that he must keep himself pure for the alchemic projection to succeed, he is easy prey for the sexual enticement provided him in the form of Doll masquerading as a learned noblewoman.
And Kastril’s wealthy sister, the widow Dame Pliant, is another woman over whom Subtle, Face and Surly, a character with strong suspicions regarding the illegality of the trio’s activities, find themselves competing. The first part of the play (though pruned in this production) is slow moving and lengthy as it has to make us familiar with the various plots and characters, but once this phase is over, and the various fraudulent plots start overlapping dangerously for the fraudulent trio, the play picks up and becomes more easily enjoyable. The end has its surprises. Lovewit comes back unexpectedly and his servant Face/Jeremy sees he can save his skin only by betraying his accomplices (who, however, get away in time) and allowing the elderly and widowed Lovewit to have the luscious young Dame Pliant, and all her money, for himself. It is a protracted ending that tries to wind up all the various subplots, the result being that I lost much interest in this elaborate denouement, especially because much of the zest of the playing seems to have evaporated at this point.
It has now become practically the normal thing to give the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries a contemporary setting, so Polly March,whose direction of a production with half-a-dozen first-class players captures all the rhythms and brings out all the energy in Jonson’s dialogue, has brought the plot down to our own time. This has worked, somewhat surprisingly, since so many scenes depend for their development and for the very flavour of the dialogue, on the long-discredited science of alchemy. I could feel that many in the audience were not deterred by the elaborate learned terminology used by Subtle and Face and gloried in by Epicure Mammon, taking it as the deceiving rubbish sensible people perceived it to be even in Jonson’s time.
Where I think March went wrong was in giving it a contemporary setting in our own Valletta without, however, trying to justify it dramatically in any way except by having her designer include a number of galleriji in Pierre Portelli’s inventive set with its large tubular structure, and giving the policemen at the end Maltese uniforms. In all other respects, this was Jonson’s London without the faintest Maltese breath being exhaled. Valletta was a purely cosmetic device that added not a jot to our appreciation of the production.
Fortunately, most of us in the audience decided we could ignore this misjudgment and enjoy the play just the same.We could also ignore the inclusion in the production script of Dame Pliant’s line about having hated the Spaniards since ’88, a clear reference to the year of the Spanish Armada (1588) not quite a sensible reference if the play is now set in 2009.We could allow Surly to dress up in what in modern times is fancy dress as a fake Spanish count, and on the other hand we could forgive Ananias and Tribulation for wearing plain black suits without looking at all like clergymenof any denomination whereas their 17th century incarnations would have been togged out in a recognisable clerical habiliment.
We could even forgive the least pardonable sin of all, that of having Face come on with or without a beard in his various disguises (implying this was a beard he just hooked on) and then towards the end, when he reverts to being respectable Jeremy, ask Subtle to shave the beard off for him… The glory of March’s direction lies in the inventiveness that distinguishes the knavish tricks of the trio. The dizzy rate at which Subtle and Face change costumes, wigs and accents is worthy of a production by full-time professionals.
Alan Paris, one of our most distinguished young actors, reaches a high peak with his scheming, brazen-faced Subtle now in his shaven pate, then in a brown wig and, in the funniest scene of all, as a US-type TV preacher, bursting with self-confidence, in a white robe and white wig, using an impeccable American accent. Not content with this, in another scene he produces a Scottish accent to complete his gallery of hilarious rogues. The sheer vigour he and Edward Mercieca’s Face exhibit throughout the production (with perhaps a little falling off towards the end) shows how far they have both come in the technique of performance. Mercieca has also come up with one of his most striking performances ever. At no point is he the Edward Mercieca long familiar to us, for like Paris he incorporates a gallery of characters in himself. He is the deepest rogue of the trio, a ‘face’ behind which lie hidden scheming ideas ready to come forth at amoment’s notice, reaching their climax at the end when, at the cost of losing all the money he has worked so hard for, he saves his neck by ingratiating himself so cunningly with Lovewit (a goodhumoured Matthew Scurfield) who admires in others the shrewdness he himself lacks. He is most clearly comical in his guise as Subtle’s laboratory assistant graced with the name of Ulen Spiegel (a trickster in German folklore, about whom the learned Ben Jonson seems to have had some knowledge), a smiling, grinning, highvoiced rascal who delights in inventing all sorts of lies about what is happening in the offstage alchemical laboratory.
Manuel Cauchi’s Sir Epicure Mammon is also memorable, especially in his poetic visions of the limitless pleasures he will enjoy when Subtle’s experiment will shortly succeed. Some of his lines in the text have been cut, I suspect, but much still remains to allow Cauchi to bring out the splendour of Jonson’s poetical imagination.
My one reservation about him is that in his courting of Nanette Brimmer’s shrewd and cunningly titillating Doll Common, he remained too much the polished gentleman and did not betray the grossness hiding just below the surface.
Jonson has written beautifully for some of the secondary roles, such as Dapper, whom Snits makes such a likable fool that one is sorry to see him made such a guy of. Stefan Cachia Zammit’s Surly is a sturdy outspokenman brimming over with suspicion, and he has a ball when disguised as the Spanish count shooting out lines written by Jonson in good Castillian, a scene that took the audience’s fancy on Sunday night.
Malcolm Galea’s Abel Drugger is nice and gentle, Philip Stilon and Narcy Calamatta find it hard to make the Puritan clergymen (satirical characters that have lost most of their point over the centuries) funny, but they do try, whereas Andrew Galea has a much easier job with the unpleasant Kastril, and Ruth Zammit can do little but look pretty in the cipher part of Dame Pliant.
Paul Xuereb - THE SUNDAY TIMES - February 15, 2009
pictures by Joseph A. Borg