The Alchemist at the Barbican review: this brilliant 17th century morality play still feels searingly relevant

Simon Thomson
The Alchemist

Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is an invigorating blend of clever script and silly performances, in which three con artists make an uneasy alliance to fleece the unsuspecting citizens of 17th century London.

First performed in 1610, The RSC’s revival at the Barbican reveals a play that’s still funny, and not just in the way you might expect from Shakespearean comedies, which tend to elicit an appreciative smile; we’re talking embarrassing guffaws and great waves of laughter sweeping across the audience.

The tone is established before anyone even sets foot on stage, as a musical ensemble slips from vaguely period Purcell into the themes from Mission: Impossible and The A-Team. When the conspiratorial trio enters, they immediately fall into fractious bickering, threats of violence, and screams of “I fart at thee!”

One of the con artists poses as an alchemist, and the marks are lured in by the promise of his arcane knowledge. A lawyer’s clerk wants to enter into a pact with the Queen of the Faeries to improve his luck with gambling, a feckless tobacconist seeks what amounts to Feng Shui advice on the layout of his new store, Sir Epicure Mammon, a rich old man, seeks the philosopher’s stone, and Kastril, an angry boy, wishes to learn how to quarrel.

The pace and intensity increases as more and more victims are drawn into the complex web of deception, and those in smaller roles are really given a chance to shine thanks to the lead actors doing most of the narrative heavy lifting. Ian Redford’s Mammon – a randy, bouffant Santa Claus – and Tom McCall’s foppish Kastril – who captures the bird-like qualities his name implies, though less majestic raptor and more splenetic chicken – are both exceptional physical comedy performances.

While the consumes and set are decidedly period ­– actors clad in ruffs and voluminous breeches, an alchemist’s study with a stuffed alligator dangling from the ceiling – the theme of mischievous entrepreneurs and our timeless capacity for moral failure is searingly modern, showing how little London has changed in the last four centuries.