I have directed two plays by Ben Jonson for the Shakespeare Theatre Company: Volpone in 1996 and The Silent Woman in 2003. I had a great time, and the actors were terrific in both. So The Alchemist, his other great play, has been looming in our future for
The Alchemist sums up Jonson’s favorite theme: people allow themselves to be fooled because of their greed or their desire to be something they are not. There’s an older man who wants to be young, there’s a poor man who wants to be rich, and there’s a shy man who wants to be brave. Jonson had a great satirical sense, and the reason the play still seems so modern to me is that the foibles and follies he goes after are still with us.
It’s a very timely play to be producing now, when a lot of people allowed themselves to be fooled because they wanted to make money, or they fooled a lot of people in trying to make money. We have seen some pretty spectacular con-men exposed in the past year or two, and the three main characters in this play are no less spectacular. But I think the issue of how easily people will allow themselves to be fooled with the idea that they are going to make a lot of money is a great thing to have some fun with in a 400-year-old play.
Do not be scared off by the alchemy in The Alchemist. I actually believe that it’s called The Alchemist not just because a character pretends to transform metal into gold, but because he transforms himself all the time to fool whoever comes to him. These con-men turn themselves into what people think they need. Not only that, but the people who are fooled alchemize themselves into the people they think they’re going to become when they’re rich. So I think that the title has something to do with another kind of alchemy, which is personal transformation. Obviously, there is no such thing as alchemy. People were trying desperately to find a way not only to turn metal into gold, but also to make an elixir that cured all ills. And we still want both of those things very badly. We want something to cure all of our problems.
I’m setting the play in modern dress. This will help us to follow all those transformations; we’ll be able to tell when he’s playing a mad scientist or when he’s playing a Feng Shui expert. I think that finding modern parallels will give the audience the same experience that Jonson’s audience had, with topical allusions. All I’m doing is transposing the archetypes that Jonson uses to modern archetypes, so that we can talk about our city and our time in the same spirit in which Jonson was talking about his London and his time.
You need actors of extraordinary skill to play the con-men, because they transform constantly. Sometimes they’re playing one persona, and then somebody comes in the door and they have to switch to another persona. Those transformations have to be physically and vocally convincing. They also have to speak the language very well, because Ben Jonson’s plays are explosions of language. And so I’m very happy to have David Manis, a wonderful comic actor, playing Subtle. Michael Milligan, who was so wonderful as Costard in Love’s Labor’s Lost and as Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, will play Face. They’re a great team.
Even though The Alchemist is one of the greatest comedies ever written, most people do not know it. And I’m quite happy that they do not know it. If you do a play by Shakespeare, so many people come in with expectations. But with Jonson, that’s not an issue. This is a very funny play, and I’m excited to introduce it to audiences.