The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King’s Men, it is generally considered Jonson’s best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play’s clever fulfilment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made it one of the few Renaissance plays (except the works of Shakespeare) with a continuing life on stage (except for a period of neglect during the Victorian era).
– Wikipedia: The Alchemist (play)
I will never cease to be astounded at the actor’s craft: chiefly, because so much of it is rendered iceberg-invisible; but, additionally, in view of the fact that I seem to be gifted with precisely not a single one of the skills required – astounding feats of memory; immersive, persuasive personation; physical strength and resilience; good looks, etc.. And these, for me – as detailed with sincere awe and admiration by Josh Roche (assistant director of the RSC’s current run of The Alchemist, and savvy director of yesterday’s one-off “public understudy performance”), in a pre-show, on-stage announcement – are never more evident than when one (or many) of them is sent on as a substitute: either, as today, with a teensy bit of rehearsal; or, at the last moment, when the run is in full swing.
Which is why I was there, really. Like his fellow talented Cambrian, Oliver Ryan (who, similarly, caused me to weep, as a key character in an episode of the marvellous, unique, soul-searing Hinterland…), I first came across Hywel Morgan at the RSC playing a small – but extremely sympathetic – rôle: in this case, as Prince George of Denmark in Queen Anne. A while later, returning to see the stupendously hilarious Love for Love – a production which involved the actors mingling with the audience, beforehand – I spent a few minutes in the Swan’s gallery chatting to him: not realizing (even though he was in costume (d’oh)) that, instead of appearing as “scrivener Trapland: yet more beaming jollity with every appearance…”, he had been ‘promoted’ to one of the principal parts: “‘free-speaker’ Scandal – a wonderful, authoritative representation of William Congreve himself, I think…”.
And he played a blinder! Therefore – thrust alone onto the stage by his peers, at the end – he earned a huge torrent of applause, whistles and cheers: not just because he acted the part so well; but because he gave everything he had in doing so. As a result, I became an instant fan: and was lucky enough to bump into him, a few weeks ago, as rehearsals for the current production began. Not only talented (who at the RSC isn’t…?!) – but a genuinely nice guy (and with similar political tendencies to my own – which always helps…)!
Welcome to the RSC’s public understudy run. The RSC, like many theatre companies, provide understudies for emergency circumstances to ensure that the show will go on even if an actor is ill, or quite literally, breaks a leg. In fact, the RSC now has a policy that means that everyone is involved in the understudy process in some way or another, whether it be understudying the lead role or supporting their colleagues by helping make this performance today go as smoothly as possible. We take understudying very seriously and consider it to be a major contribution to the sense of company that we hope to create here, and to the personal development of individual actors.
In the past, each production would have had an understudy run which might attract an audience of of a few friends, family and colleagues. However in recent years we have opened our doors to make these special one-off performances a public event. This is a chance for us to give you an insight into a previously hidden part of putting on a show at the RSC and an excellent opportunity for the actors to experience what it is like to perform their understudy roles in front of a large audience.
We are all delighted you could join us this afternoon and I hope you enjoy the slightly anarchic inventiveness of an RSC understudy run.
– Hannah Miller, Head of Casting
Yesterday afternoon, instead of only appearing onstage for the final scenes (although his uncanny likeness is present, in the form of a bust, right at the beginning – does he get to keep this, at the end of the run, I wonder?) as Lovewit (the names Ben Jonson gives to his characters are just superb!), he was, again, playing a much, er, larger character (standing in for Father Christmas-lookalike Ian Redford) – that of Sir Epicure Mammon (and hidden behind a rather wonderful fake beard). This is a rôle that requires walking the tightrope of overacting without actually falling off: and impressively done it was, too (and without any sort of safety net or balance pole). He may have laid it on with a trowel – but it was a tiny and perfectly sculpted one…! Bravo!
In fact, like Love for Love – rather than, say, Volpone, which drags a little in the second half – the whole company are required, for the sake of momentum, to ham it up just a little…. (Perhaps their sustenance comes from piglets in blankets…?) As a result, “the willing suspension of disbelief” isn’t really necessary: as the audience are part of the fun (especially when a core section of it are the remaining, enthusiastic members of the full cast – who will later appear as the nosy “Neighbours”). Additionally, being in the Swan – even on the back row, in the stalls, as I was – you are always immersed.
One of the main reasons for all this jollity is that, as director Polly Findlay says, “It’s a farce. It’s not the first farce in English; but it certainly marks a real development in the form.” And, of course, the genre (which normally I dislike… – but I loved every moment, yesterday…!) requires stamina and pace – even when it’s as intelligently and wittily constructed as this production is. [A lot of credit must therefore be dished out to Stephen Jeffreys: who not only wrote a completely new prologue – although you couldn’t tell it was not one of Jonson’s – but carefully revised the script, and surgically removed around a fifth of it, without even leaving a scar. “It is generally agreed,” he writes in the programme notes, “that playing the full text counters against the speed and brilliance of the plot.” (The same can be said of this company’s Doctor Faustus, of course. And, as a result, I may soon become less argumentative in my insistence on complete texts…!)]
And, as with the similarly manic Love for Love – is it a coincidence that both canny ‘servants’ are named Jeremy…? – there is a curious stuffed crocodile hanging over the stage. [The same one, I think: which may soon become a permanent fixture – perfect for Crociolanus or Love’s Gator’s Lost, perhaps…? – of the Swan’s sets (this one beautifully, astutely, designed by Helen Goddard).] Similarly, there are again references to the season in the theatre next door: including poor Yorick’s skull resting on the dining table (as part of a beautiful, perfect three-dimensional recreation of a contemporary still-life): a piece of furniture that, with its companion chairs, almost becomes another fully-fledged character.
Before all this cleverly-scripted frenzy begins, though, there is some fantastic, definitely non-period, introductory “heist movie” music – by Corin Buckeridge: who tells me “we all certainly had far too much fun putting it together!” – to get us in the mood. This is matched with some lovely moments of underscored subtlety – “Massive credit to the RSC band (for playing more quietly than they thought possible)!” – which, for once, never over-intrude, or outstay their purpose.
Despite this being an understudy performance, the acting was also of the highest quality (as it always is in the Swan). Tom McCall – looking remarkably like a young William Shakespeare – was wonderfully moody and mad (although I must apologize for constantly getting in his way as he raised and lowered the central trio’s stash of money – hidden, of course, in that confounded reptile…).
Much was made of Natey Jones’ superb doubling up of characters (on one occasion appearing on stage together… – oh, the perils of understudying more than one part…!) – only requiring the removal of a hat or addition of a satchel (and exquisite timing) for us instantly to know who was who. Likewise with Theo Fraser Steele (as both sceptical Sir Pertinax Surly and the aforementioned “master of the house” Lovewit) talking to himself (which, at one point required vaulting up and down the Swan’s treacherous stairs). Much of the well-deserved laughter therefore emanated from such self-knowing, often absurd, spotlighting of the stand-ins – also frequently eliciting spontaneous rounds of applause (which was a wonderful, wonderful, engaging thing…). The versatile Gabriel Fleary – as Kastril, “an angry boy” – brought a new meaning to “break a leg”: acting with a crutch, because of injury; and then propelling himself (with great skill) with two of the things when a mad (farcical trademark) chase around the Swan’s boards ensued. Phenomenal bravado – and all played with the most delightful stupid smirk! (I just hope there was a large supply of ice-packs and painkillers ready for him, afterwards.)
The highlight of the afternoon – apart from watching Mr Morgan, of course – was seeing the two angels from Faustus take wing. John Cummins was absolutely spot-on, with his ponytail, as Jeremy, aka ‘Face’ (although he momentarily, magically, morphed into Mark Lockyer, at one stage: who plays the part in the full run!): commanding the stage (and the audience); and gulling the frequent vain and idiotic visitors to the house (again, almost another principal character…). Even his T-shirt – as the company time-travelled from 1610 forward to the present day, as the house-lights went up – provoked howls of laughter! And Will Bliss, as both Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias (respectively a pastor and a deacon of Amsterdam), so superbly torn between greed and piety – as well as having to confer, bemusedly, between his two enforced doppelgängers – was tear-jerkingly entertaining; and just the right amount of bonkers.
Talking of flying: at first I didn’t recognize Eleanor Wyld: such was her transformation from Lucifer (“Think on the devil…”) to Dol Common. But, again, she gave this principal character (and all its variations: from prostitute, to “an aristocratic lady who, being mad…”, to the Queen of Fairy) everything: with some utterly believable, shrewd changes of accent and mood. Ruth Everett (as Dame Pliant) – resurrecting the spirit of the Duchess in Don Quixote – was also side-splittingly funny (and surprisingly naïve for someone who was supposed to have been married before…). She has a genius for portraying emotion with just a widening of the eyes; and is also a virtuoso of the silly walk….
That every member of the company was so brilliant, so accomplished, demonstrates the RSC’s key strengths in casting. As I said in my recent review of Hamlet, this is a “demonstration that giving small parts to great actors pays dividends in the quality stakes”. I’m therefore really looking forward to my next three (oh yes!) visits: firstly, to catch up on the bits that speeded past me so frenetically (aided by captions, of course); secondly, to see what a difference swapping an entire cast can make (with all the players playing just one part each); and, finally, simply because I am guaranteed to leave the theatre with a semi-permanent (and stupid) grin on my face! Thank you, all!