A few swindlers promise gullible investors a huge rate of return for modest investments. Sound familiar? Actually, these kinds of schemes were going on long before the 21st century, and Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy, The Alchemist, is a testament to that.
Currently being performed by the McGill Department of English Drama and Theatre Program and directed by Sean Carney, The Alchemist tells the story of Renaissance London turned upside down as a result of the bubonic plague. After Lovewit (Matthew Banks) temporarily flees his home to evade the plague, his servant Jeremy (Chirag Naik) seizes the opportunity to turn the mansion into the headquarters for fraudulent acts. He transforms himself into “Captain Face” and enlists the help of fellow con artists Subtle (Michael Ruderman), a commoner who pretends to be “the alchemist,” and Doll Common (Katie Scharf), a prostitute who dons various disguises. They go through lengths to make their ploys convincing—exploiting widowers and pretending to be fairy queens and crazy people afflicted with scurvy—but can they get away with their ruse before Lovewit returns?
A friend and contemporary of Shakespeare, Jonson is a relatively unknown entity within the canon of English Literature despite his prolific outpouring of both poetry and dramatic works. Unlike Shakespeare, whose plays took viewers to foreign lands and through ancient history, Jonson’s plays are set in the London his contemporaries knew and recognized. They grappled with 17th-century London preoccupations: plague, prostitution, dueling, smoking, the rise of Puritanism, and, most prominently, alchemy.
With Jonson’s classical understanding of theatre, he transforms the singular set of the mansion into a frame through which the various archetypes of Renaissance England converge. For example, Dapper (Teis Jorgensen), a lawyer’s clerk, wants Subtle to use his “necromantic” skills to summon a “familiar” who might help him become a better investor. Sir Epicure Mammon (Charles Harries), a nobleman, wants the alchemist to procure for him the Philosopher’s Stone, which he believes will bring him eternal wealth. With Epicure is Surly (Fraser Dickson), who sees through Subtle’s ploy but is unable to prove his case. Greedy Puritans also get involved, hoping to get metal to be turned into gold, as well as a tobacconist who wants to establish a profitable business.
Despite certain familiar themes, the play is by no means easy to follow. Although considered “modern English,” the language of Jonson’s play is far from the one we understand; the dialogue is fast paced; and the action moves alarmingly fast. It’s silly rather than witty, and the humour is almost frustratingly slapstick, so that if you’re looking for a moment to sit back and relax, the constant shrieking, falling, and jumping around on stage will surely hinder you from doing so.
That said, the actors do an impeccable job of making the play accessible to a modern audience. Their comedic timing is spot on, the staging is done with professionalism, and the costumes and scenery really add to the quality of the production. As “Face,” Naik is incredibly funny, seamlessly switching from the reverent Jeremy to the agile, shrill “Face.” Other notable performances came from Harries, who played Epicure with subtlety and a superb sense of comedic timing, and Scharf, who elicited a number of laughs in her portrayal of Doll.
In The Alchemist, typical gender and class roles are reversed as the prostitute Doll holds together the trio with reason and common sense, the goofy Dapper is forced to undergo humiliating cross-dressing in order to meet the “queen of fairy,” and the upper class end up looking like the greatest fools of all. All castes of society ultimately fall prey to the same weakness: while Epicure, already wealthy, wants still more, even Ananias (CeCe Culver-Grey), a supposedly zealous Puritan, is looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. The con artists themselves, always looking for more money, are ultimately undone by the same folly that they exploit in their victims.
Jonson was a turbulent character in his time—he drank too much, rebelled against authority, and converted to Catholicism at a time when it was suicidal to do so—but he was rightly skeptical of the violent potential of the individual. Like Jonson himself, The Alchemist contains no neat morals. While some characters receive their well-deserved retribution, others remain unscathed.
The Alchemist has enjoyed such a long and active life on the stage because of its moral ambiguity, and its timeless themes. As Carney notes, “Lots of people in Jonson’s world believed it was possible to turn impure lead into gold, just as plenty of people today people believe in astrology, feng shui, scientology … and the stock market.”
The Alchemist plays at Moyse Hall from March 31- April 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 students/seniors, $10 general admission. Ticket Hotline: 514-398-6070.