This will be short.

You walk into the Swan. It might as well be the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There’s smoke in the air and lots of candles, and soon a bunch of people in Jacobean outfits will enter; there’s also a table laden with nicely antiqued props upstage. Once the acting starts, the audience intermittently becomes part of the action — all very Globe-like. It takes a while to get going, but when it does, the entire affair roles along nicely enough, inoffensively enough, with a few bright moments — Abel Drugger’s (generally excellent as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed bundle of total innocence: Richard Leeming), beaming centre-stage announcement “I do now and then give her a fucus;” Dol Common being raised aloft on a harness by a struggling Face in her last encounter with Dapper, throwing confetti and struggling to keep from spinning on her rope; Epicure Mammon’s frequent rhetorical flights of fancy on the theme of food. But mostly, it’s extremely, extremely straightforward, with nary a directorial idea in sight, or a concept, or a sense of why this is a play worth staging in 2016. The closest we get to that is the musical interlude before the show starts, which hilariously veers from Renaissance-y lute music befitting the set into renditions (on drums and period instruments, I think) of various heist-film-theme tunes, including the Sting and (a bit incongruously) the James Bond theme. And it ends with Face taking off his early modern outfit to reveal jeans and t-shirt underneath, and the rich curtains upstage descending to discover the brick wall of the Swan beneath. So, mild gestures towards the present, towards the long tradition of con stories this play fits into, towards the universality of play-acting and the theatre as the home of legitimate con artists (a Jonsonian obsession, of course). And that’s it. Otherwise, this is as conventional, if smooth, a show as one could imagine.

It’s the second Alchemist I’ve seen in two years, and the last one, in Stratford (Ontario), was exactly like this one — including a musical opening that misleadingly suggested contemporary relevance. The Canadian show was “better” in the sense that its “venture tripartite” was made up of actors who were Stratford stalwarts and whose familiarity with each other translated into an ensemble energy that isn’t as evident in the RSC production. But in principle, the two shows were basically the same: comfortably historically located, focussed on maximal “clarity” (whatever that actually means), painlessly funny, smooth, professional. Not a terrible night at the theatre, but also not one that leaves me thinking — or with much to say.

If it weren’t for one bizarre feature of this show: a program note from the playwright Stephen Jeffreys. Why? Because he “has written an original prologue and revised the script for this production of The Alchemist.” What does “revision” mean? It appears Jeffreys cut the play by about 20 per-cent, and altered a few topical references “now incomprehensible to most audiences.”

That new prologue, apparently designed to help with “locating us in the play”? It’s a competent pastiche of early modern English, and it completely ruins the opening of the show — an opening that must surely rank among the craziest and funniest in all of early modern drama. More or less the first thing we hear is Subtle’s “Thy worst. I fart at thee!” Here, on the other hand, the three con artists are already on stage, delivering the fairly ponderous narrative prologue — and then they switch into the play itself, suddenly have to rev up to fighting energy, and launch into the furious argument which should be the first time we hear their voices and watch them interact. (Stratford/Ontario cut the prologue altogether, if I remember correctly — a much smarter decision. Unless you think Jonson is, or the show should, always shoot for maximum comprehensibility in all situations, there is no need at all for a little speechified backgrounder before the play starts. Especially not since the audience is also given a plot summary in the program.)

It’s not so much that the new prologue was dull and wrecked Jonson’s fantastic opening: wreck away if you wish. My beef is with the fact that the RSC thought it necessary to use the program to explain not just the existence of the prologue, but also the completely normal and commonplace cutting of the play. Why? And why hire a playwright to do some cutting? I know the job of dramaturg remains a bit of mystery in this country, but couldn’t you at least trust your director with producing a performance text? And do you really need to explain to an audience why you think they need an explanatory speech before the show gets underway? And do you really need to highlight that this production, as almost all productions of almost all plays, does not use all the words the playwright wrote? What does this strange layer-cake of self-conscious explanatory gestures say about how the RSC understands the relative authority of performance and of performers?

Of course, as the Q&A after the show revealed, the RSC knows its audience and is perhaps rightly nervous about any perceived disrespect for the sacred text. Because it turns out that even a show as utterly faithful to the play, as completely devoid of distressingly modern directorial touches as this one can still make RSC patrons grumpy. One gentleman, a latter-day Ben himself, used his question time to lay into the actors for their failure to trust Jonson’s words and accused them of having lost faith in the text from the start — because they had dared to cut any of it; and because they mentioned the (totally commonplace) rehearsal technique of line-by-line paraphrase. Apparently to some Stratford theatre goers, actors should do nothing but speak the words (comprehension being an unnecessary luxury) and get out of the play’s way as quickly as possible. David Mamet should consider relocating here.

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