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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Alchemist Review

Alice is an 18 year old Philosophy student at the University of Birmingham. She also worked at the World Shakespeare Congress as an Events Ambassador and had opportunity to come down and review a play the week before the Congress.

Siobhán McSweeney, Ken Nwosu and Mark Lockyer in The Alchemist. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

When the cat's away, the mice will play - and boy, these mice are ready to put on quite a play. This season, the RSC sees Polly Findlay bring to live the Renaissance comedy The Alchemist by Shakespeare's near-contemporary, Ben Jonson. As the plague hits London, Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) skips town, leaving his mansion in the hands of his mischievous manservant Jeremy (Ken Nwosu) and his band of conniving friends.
Taking place in the Swan Theatre; the space at the RSC generally reserved for Shakespeare's contemporaries as Hamlet plays just across the hall, The Alchemist is an unmissable feature of the RSC's season.
The Alchemist is unique amongst the Renaissance plays in its totally contemporary setting. Whilst most of the bard's plays are set in historical England, The Alchemist is set in Blackfriars in the year it was written - 1610 - and its vivacious contemporary atmosphere is one of several reasons why 406 years later, this play translates brilliantly and transparently to today's audience.
As we enter the Victorian-Gothic theatre, the wonderful Jacobean set immediately thrusts us into the dark, smoky criminal underworld of 17th Century London where the play takes place.
The play launches into action with an original prologue, written by playwright Stephen Jeffreys, which is energetically and hilariously delivered by the production's three stand-out actors; Ken Nwosu as the conniving but hopeless manservant Jeremy, Mark Lockyer as Subtle - the brilliantly disastrous sham alchemist, and Siobhán McSweeney as the utterly lovable yet take-no-prisoners prostitute, Dol Common.
These three characters - the band of terribly hopeless criminals - are central to this calamitous farce, and maintain their comedy and energy expertly throughout the 2 hour and 20 minute production, as they are joined on stage by the "sober, scurvy set" of Londoners who they plan to con and swindle out of their money.
Beyond being ingeniusly funny, The Alchemist is a social comment on the levels of vanity which humanity is capable of. This group of scoundrels who have transformed their master's mansion into their criminal den, have no limit to the depth to which they will stoop, in order to trick some unsuspecting victim that Subtle is, in fact, a powerful alchemist. From convincing a naive tobacconist (charmingly portrayed by Richard Leeming) that he is a necromancer, to tricking a group of Anabaptists into believing that he has the philosophers stone - a magical transmuting stone that will turn any base metal into gold - Subtle's only magic qualities are in how good a con-man he is. RSC veteran Mark Lockyer plays the eponymous alchemist unashamedly, boldly and captivatingly, really breathing life into Jonson's charmingly vile con-artist.
Polly Findlay in her pacing and bold direction succeeds in bringing to light Jonson's clever parallels drawn between the world of alchemy, and Jacobean London. In an uncertain city, literally on the brink of demise, this play is about striving for change - just as the philosopher's stone is said to change the ordinary into gold, the lowly conmen aim to augment themselves, to climb the social ladder and become something wealthier and more powerful. Every scene in this play is rife with conflict; from the initial scene where Jeremy and Subtle bicker about shares of the profits, to the Anabaptists quarrelling over the legitimacy of alchemy; the friction and sparks generated by the reminds us of the intensity and often hilarious unpredictability of those at the bottom, in a city on the brink.
As we near the end of the play, the RSC's technical team really do bring out all the stops, to create some pretty spectacular stuff, which I'd rather not give away. The devised ending of the play is deeply clever, very funny, and does a marvellous job of bringing together the themes of trickery, false-play and humour, which drive this real gem of a piece.

So, whilst the philosopher's stone may ultimately be the stuff of legends, the RSC really has succeeded in created something genuinely golden in the Swan Theatre this season.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Doctor Faustus review

Alex Barasch is a 19 year old Biology student and the current RSC Ambassador for Oxford University, who, as a lover of early modern drama (and theatre in general), takes full advantage of the RSC Key’s BP £5 tickets whenever possible.

Maria Aberg’s production of Doctor Faustus is a compelling one from the outset. It opens with RSC veterans Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan walking on stage and striking a match: the lead whose match burns out first “loses” and is forced to take on the role of Faustus, the eponymous doctor who sells his soul to Lucifer for 24 years of supernatural power and impunity, while his counterpart plays the devil Mephistophilis. This mirroring continues throughout, as the two swap lines, share monologues and imitate each other’s physicality, emphasising the strength of their contract— and culminating in a delightfully intimate end.

Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson in 
Doctor Faustus. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

Aberg’s decision to cut the comic scenes in the middle of the play resulted in a fast-paced, unrelenting performance. In particular, the treatment of Benvolio’s (Tom McCall) humiliation and attempted revenge was tonally excellent, and while Ryan’s manic Mephistophilis was sometimes brutal, Grierson shone as a palpably tormented Faustus whose breakdown is reflected by the ensemble around him. As everyone he encounters grows increasingly grotesque and inhuman in both appearance and behaviour—the faceless soldiers who attend on the Emperor communicate in ominous clicks, and the Duke of Vanholt could pass for Gluttony—he no longer knows whom to trust.

The visible purity and seeming normalcy of Helen’s childlike spirit comes almost as a relief to both the Doctor and the audience when he first summons her, until it becomes clear that here, too, something is off. In this, one of the most unsettling moments of the production, Faustus is forced to confront the hollowness of the “pleasures” that have cost him his soul. The clever doubling of scholars and devils makes subsequent scenes even more sinister, and we begin to understand Faustus’ paranoia: has the crowd come to entreat him to entertain with his magic or drag him to hell at last?

These bold choices in costuming and characterisation are complemented by Naomi Dawson’s simple yet evocative set (the pentagram Faustus draws when he first summons Mephistophilis remains as a striking reminder for the duration) and Orlando Gough’s stunning score, by turns discordant and sensual. All in all, a powerful and innovative interpretation not to be missed.

Doctor Faustus is now playing in the Swan Theatre until 4 August, 16-25 year olds can still get BP £5 tickets for this production – just enter promo code 1625 when booking.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tess Henderson is a 22 year old English Literature and Drama graduate from UWE. She is passionate about theatre and writes a theatre blog dedicated to the subject. She is currently working as a Content Creation Marketer in Bristol.

If I could sum up the RSC production of Peter and Wendy in one word, it would be: Ingenious.
Playwright, Ella Hickson uproots the classic JM Barrie tale and forms it into something deeper and more relevant, yet still remains true to the context of the time.

One defining feature in Hickson’s version is that we begin with four Darling children instead of three. Tom is the fourth child who passes away at the beginning of the play, thus shattering the Darling household as they know it. Therefore, when Peter Pan arrives and mentions the ‘Lost Boys’ in Neverland, Wendy immediately jumps to the conclusion that Tom must be one of them; providing the story with a much stronger emotional pull than the promise of pirates and mermaids (although this is still what sways John and Michael!).

Another very strong feature to Hickson’s version is that arguably, this isn’t Peter’s story at all, it’s Wendy’s. In JM Barrie’s novel, Wendy is predominantly shoved into the ‘motherly’ role and thus into the restraints of patriarchy, as seen when she is put safely into her ‘Wendy house’ when she arrives in Neverland. However, Hickson turns her into a powerful force to be reckoned with as she scoffs at the childishness of Peter and the other boys and hatches a plan of her own to find Tom. This is mirrored by Mrs Darling’s story as she breaks out of the family home to fight for her independence amongst the Suffragette movement.

Mariah Gale plays Wendy with ease, as she not only reveals her childlike innocence, but her more opinionated, strong and practical side. Gale was one of my favourite performers as I felt that she brought a different side to Wendy; she made her a real, flawed human being rather than the prim and proper young girl Wendy is so often portrayed as.

I appreciated the way women were brought to the forefront of this narrative. I really liked the way Hickson joined the female characters together to save the Lost Boys on The Jolly Roger. With Tiger Lily’s (Mimi Ndiweni) strength and resilience, Tinkerbell’s (Charlotte Mills)  sassiness and wit, and Wendy’s passion and confidence, we have the perfect team and truly see the different aspects of their personalities.

The set was incredible – thanks to award-winning designer Colin Richmond. A lot of thought and effort had been put into both the design and construction; particularly the Lost Boy’s den.
I thoroughly enjoyed this imaginative revision of Wendy and Peter Pan. It challenged the original story and successfully captured the feminist, comical and magical moments of the tale. I felt like I had been transported to the Neverland I had always wanted to experience!

Wendy & Peter Pan is now playing in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until the 31 January.BP £5 tickets are available with promo code 1625