Directing Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist

Polly Findlay discusses the challenges of directing Ben Jonson's play, The Alchemist.

There’s no getting away from the fact that The Alchemist is a difficult play to direct. The premise is simple enough: with his master away from London, butler Face and his friends set up an innovative con-artist business, with the vacant house as HQ. However, as our protagonists begin to improvise, the plot quickly becomes so complicated that it’s almost impossible to relate. Spotting new income opportunities, the gang set one gull up against another, building increasingly elaborate scams based on fictions so complex and interwoven that even the criminals can’t always remember what version of the truth they’re meant to be peddling at any given moment. Making clear to an audience exactly who thinks what, when, and why, is in simple terms a huge production challenge.

Photographs of Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer and Richard Leeming in The Alchemist, 2016

Photographs of Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer, and Richard Leeming in The Alchemist, 2016

Photograph from Polly Findlay’s 2016 RSC production of The Alchemist. Face (Ken Nwosu) holds his finger to his lips confidentially while Subtle (Mark Lockyer) considers the scam at hand.

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Usage terms © Donald Cooper / Photostage

An elaborate construction of language and images

But before we can grapple with the intricate plotting, we must first encounter the astonishingly elaborate construction of Jonson’s language. Rivalling any writer you can think of for sheer density of image, his sentences seem frequently to be spilling over with the richness of their visual detail, often teetering dangerously close to the edge of mixed metaphor:

… I shall put you in mind, sir, at Pie-Corner,

Taking your meal of steam in, from cooks’ stalls,

Where, like the father of hunger, you did walk

Piteously costive, with your pinch’d horn nose,

And your complexion of the Roman wash,

Stuck full of black and melancholic worms,

Like powder corns shot at the artillery-yard.

For all the fantastic heft and crunch of Jonson’s verse, there are also instances where the language of the play feels almost deliberately tortuous. Sometimes this obscurity is vital, either to the plot (Subtle’s ‘alchemy’ is rendered plausible precisely because the gulls can’t really follow what’s going on) or to the comedy. Jonson often gets his laugh from the bathetic crash of an Anglo- Saxon noun following a string of Latinate pomposities:

Your stone, your med’cine, and your chyrsosperm,

Your sal, your sulphur, and your mercury…

With all your broths, your menstrues, and materials

Of piss and egg-shells…

The Ordinal of Alchemy, 1477

The Ordinal of Alchemy

The language used in alchemy manuals, such as this one, was also purposefully confusing and obscure.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

There are, however, also instances where Jonson’s almost manic layering-up of images seems to obscure rather than liberate our sense of the text. Over and over again in the rehearsal room, we had the experience of realising that what was being said was in fact much simpler than it at first appeared. When rehearsing Shakespeare, for example, the experience is nearly always the inverse. Trained as we are to handle language where apparently simple linguistic constructions give way to dizzying numbers of possible interpretations, there can be something frustrating – even disappointing – in a rehearsal discussion of lines like…

Don Face! why, he's the most authentic dealer

In these commodities, the superintendent

To all the quainter traffickers in town!

… which ends with an actor saying, ‘Oh! He just means pimp’.

A Caveat for Common Cursetors, 1567

A Caveat for Common Cursetors, 1567

A Caveat is a 16th century pamphlet designed to expose criminals and con artists. It includes a list of specialised vocabulary used by rogues and vagabonds, known as cant.

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Self-referential language and playing with the notion of ‘truth’

However, as we rehearsed it became clear that the trend for the language to fold back in on itself was crucial to the very DNA of the play. There are no soaring Renaissance metaphors here – instead, Jonson’s language stays close to the ground, endless nouns stack up or are strung together as the syntax itself reflects an appalled fascination with the mere ‘thingness’ of things. Jonson’s language deliberately points back at the elaborateness of its own construction, rather than up and out towards some Shakespearean idea of the epic or the divine. In doing so, it laughs at the very idea of the pursuit of a greater ‘truth’. Set in plague-torn London, the play’s characters may all be living close to death, but the language itself resists the idea that any of them might have souls.

Jonson’s linguistic games ultimately provide the key to understanding the construction of the play itself. The inward-turning, self-referential nature of Jonson’s language proves to be really just his greatest trick in miniature. The Alchemist is a play that knows it is a play, declaring itself to be a construct not only in the prologue and epilogue that bookend the audience’s experience, but also in the way that the characters present themselves. The close-up, detailed study of the way in which Subtle, Doll and Face operate opens up a series of reflections on the many challenges of the acting process: we watch them juggling their various roles, changing their actions according to who they’re playing with, improvising in character, managing new props and difficult costume changes and sometimes (when one gull is inside the house and the other outside the door) even having to play two scenes at once – all the while remaining utterly plausible and ‘authentic’ to the character they are currently trying to deceive. Adding to the mix, the near-constant flurry of riffs, in-jokes and asides between themselves and the audience, the sheer number of different ‘realities’ inhabited by the actors playing these three parts is breathtaking. It’s a marathon acting challenge, constructed in such a way that it’s almost impossible for actor, director or audience member to say what is strictly ‘true’ at any given moment.

Photographs of Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer and Richard Leeming in The Alchemist, 2016

Photographs of Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer, and Richard Leeming in The Alchemist, 2016

Findlay’s 2016 production of The Alchemist: Face (Ken Nwosu) and Abel Drugger (Richard Leeming), one of the gulls.

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The Alchemist’s audience and Jonson’s final flourish

If self-referential syntax is the smallest Russian doll in Jonson’s deconstructionist game, with a plurality of acting realities the next one up, the third doll in the series would be the astonishing way in which Jonson sets out to manipulate the audience’s expectations. Beginning with a prologue reminding us that we are ‘never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, and especially in plays …’, he goes on to prove himself right, wrong-footing us again and again. Like an expert magician, Jonson is so conscious of an audience’s likely narrative assumption that he can use it as a form of misdirection, allowing himself to change the game completely at the moment when they’re not quite looking.

The whole audience will of course assume that the house-owner’s return will inevitably lead to Jeremy’s comeuppance and a moral reckoning; in fact, it marks the point where the play turns out to have been operating along moral lines far darker and more complex than we could possibly have imagined. The deeply complicit relationship that is set up between the audience and our three protagonists of course leads us to assume that they will see us through the action, leaving us partners in their triumph or, in the very worst case, witnesses to their final despair. In actuality, two of our three ‘heroes’ are hurriedly dispatched from the stage with hardly so much as an exit speech, while in the last scene Face is relegated to little more than a bit-part, an extra in what has turned out to be someone else’s play. The mad acceleration of the plot – complete with handbrake turns and screeching reversals – produces a kind of vicious, postmodern momentum, destroying everything, including the main characters, in its path. In the end, it feels almost as if what has beaten Subtle, Face and Doll is the drive of the play itself.

Jonson’s most dazzling trick, of course, is deployed in his final flourish. The largest Russian doll is, as it were, even bigger than the audience: they hadn't even noticed it was there. In the play’s closing moments, Jonson makes clear that the whole thing was in fact a joke on us, one that – if we’d only been awake enough – we could have seen from the beginning. Jonson’s closing lines bring us directly back to not only the fact that we are sitting in a theatre, but that the actor has  been paid (‘this pelf that I have got…’) for the successful conclusion of the play’s most epic and sophisticated con-trick – the one that has been played on the audience. We are the victim of the play’s ultimate sting, having parted with good money for a fiction that disappears into a nothingness. None of Jonson’s contemporaries, not even Shakespeare, were capable of creating a dramatic form that deliberately undermined itself in this way. It would be more than 300 years before any other writers tried the same thing.

  • Polly Findlay
  • Polly Findlay is a British theatre director. Her recent directing credits include Limehouse (Donmar Warehouse, 2017); Ghosts (HOME, Manchester, 2016); The Alchemist (Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican, 2016); As You Like It (National Theatre, 2015); The Merchant of Venice (Royal Shakespeare Company,2015); Treasure Island (Oliver, National Theatre, 2014); Krapp's Last Tape (Sheffield Crucible, 2014). She was joint winner (with Derren Brown) of the 2012 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment for Derren Brown: Svengali. She won the 2007 JMK Award for Young Directors and was awarded the 2006/07 Bulldog Princeps Bursary at the National Theatre Studio.