How do you make a London-based, seventeenth-century comedy with notoriously dense dialogue appeal to a modern day audience? Apparently, the answer is: set it in Glasgow, rewrite it in rhyming couplets, and turn the physicality of the acting up to eleven. This is the formula employed to Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist by acclaimed Scottish writer and performer Gary McNair. Following on from the success of McGonagall’s Chronicles at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, it’s safe to say that this experiment proves to be far more successful than those of his con artist characters.
With her master’s vacant home at her disposal, the scheming housekeeper Face, played with tremendous energy by Louise McCarthy, teams up with the equally energetic Grant O’Rourke as the eponymous “alchemist”. Together, they work to trick their gullible and gaudily dressed victims out of their money with promises of fairy queens, philosopher’s stones and “everlasting Irn Bru that never loses its fizz”.
Throughout this two-hour production, the audience can look forward to several cleverly crafted, and perfectly profane, rhymes which are skilfully delivered by a small but passionate cast. Special attention must also be paid to the intense physical acting – the core comic accompaniment to McNair’s special brand of poetry. Each cast member gives added force and feeling to their lines through highly exaggerated facial expressions, changes of voice and body language. On the whole, the feeling conveyed is one of controlled chaos, and in this case, it’s just what the doctor (alchemist?) ordered.
To cap off the exceptional performance, a mention must be given to the exquisite attention to detail in the set and costumes for The Alchemist. The brightly coloured household setting, with its Wonderland-esque trappings of teapots, trumpets and birdcages hanging from the ceiling, and the vision of Subtle himself in magnificent blue robes and feathery headgear are enough to convince any viewer that they are already under the alchemist’s cosmic influence. Combine this with Face’s numerous and chaotic costume changes for each of her victims, with each persona more outrageous than the last, and what results is a dynamic, devious duo with visible chemistry. Without a doubt, the comedy gold found in The Alchemist is the real thing – no lead or elixirs required.
In closing, it seems only fitting to sum up the experience of seeing The Alchemist in a little poetic nod to the writer: For an evening of rhymes and true comedic flair, There can be no other than Mr McNair.