Distilling laughs


The Alchemist
By Ben Jonson
Directed by Neil Armfield
Belvoir Theatre until September 29
Reviewed by Jonathan Strauss

Why should an end-of-the-20th-century audience greet with guffaws and hearty applause a 385-year-old black comedy, focused on our gullibility to con artists and the lack of honour among thieves?

No doubt part of the success of this production is a result of the skilful combination by cast — including Max Cullen (as the gold-hungry and lustful Sir Epicure Mammon), Gillian Jones (playing the "fairie queen" Dol Common), Geoffrey Rush (in the title role) and Hugo Weaving (as a flash Captain Face doubling as dull Lungs) — and crew of farce, slapstick, ad lib elements and the absurd, including eclectic costuming that might be described as 17th century grunge. This play is for laughs and, conscious of its audience, it gets them.

Jonson's play, however, does also relate to present-day foibles and prejudices. People fall prey to silver-tongued vendors of the "new age" (and mainstream politicians — consider the current government). The religious pomposity of Christian fundamentalism (then, the Anabaptists) is pricked. Women characters appear only in the role of sexual objects or money-manipulating subjects. Contemporary references introduced included Australian xenophobia towards those across the Tasman and the Manning Clark "Order of Lenin" controversy.

As well, in a perhaps characteristic theme for a play written at the time of the rise of English capitalism, it suggests that uppity hoi polloi will end up on the street (in fact, literally at the back of the theatre) while a servant who looks after his master will succeed.

The Alchemist light-heartedly prods us towards self-examination without ever seeking to answer our questions. To search for philosophy here would perhaps be as fruitless as alchemy's search for the metal-transforming philosopher's stone. What has been distilled is a tremendous night's entertainment.