The Alchemist, Olivier Theatre, London

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Not in years have I had so divided an experience as in watching Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. The acting is all good – and the best, Alex Jennings as Subtle, is transfixingly, inventively, effortlessly, superb, surely the most marvellous acting performance before the British public today.

The casting is de luxe, with Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Manville, Ian Richardson and others. Thanks doubtless to the zip and focus of Hytner’s production, the actors frequently make me chuckle at dense Jacobean lines which, I realise afterwards, I honestly don’t understand. But they’re also so good that I wish Hytner had put them in a play I liked.

To watch The Alchemist is to try drinking an inch of satire through a yard of farce foam. Five doors, innumerable disguises, dupes, crooks, schemes, affectations galore. To what end? Jonson catches Jacobean urbanity with the kind of virtuosity that is very nearly impenetrable to the modern ear, so we work hard to keep up with a play that eventually takes us nowhere but to expose the unlovable shenanigans of some black-hearted crooks.

Hytner, following the precedent of Tyrone Guthrie, makes it modern- dress, which makes us all far more keenly aware of the social types that Jonson is presenting. But the Olivier Theatre is far too broad and deep a space for this kind of busy intrigue, the play runs down dispiritingly towards the end, and, although everyone plays with marvellous glee, only Jennings seems to be in love with the character he’s playing. Simon Russell Beale as Face has a whale of a time with his changes of persona, hilarious and fascinating in many details, but you’re aware that his main London accent is forced and, in two of the more nasal voices he adopts, many words are unintelligible. Ian Richardson, by contrast, is a paragon of clarity as Sir Epicure Mammon, his sense of the verse’s pulse is superlative and he seems refreshed by playing for once a character who is a fool. The languor with which he voices a corrupt fantasy, “naked amid my succubi”, made me long to see him as Malvolio.

Jennings, without ever upstaging anyone or competing, does marvels. Now he’s an American Buddhist hippy, with bandana and necklaces, chanting nasally while folded in half-lotus positions; now he suavely floats downstairs as a smooth-voiced upper-class English monk in a white hooded robe. Next he’s a fiercely Scottish boffin as urgent as all hell – and in between he reverts to a harsh Souf Lunnon accent. And yet this impish, wicked chameleon never seems to be working. The long neck is always animated but never tense, the sloping shoulders are relaxation itself, and – as always with Jennings – a basic shift of weight from one foot to another can speak volumes. You don’t notice that he has the most pellucid diction, and he never once forces an impersonation. The timing with which he slyly swings a leg, the finish with which he opens his hands by way of punctuation, the flash of intensity when he stares through circular eyes: these are all passing delights, along with the biting edge with which he says “Yes, or my heart is an egregious liar.” Jennings (often at his finest when directed by Hytner) is here in the high summer of his immense skill as an actor. Although I want to see him immediately play every role from Iago to Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, from Tartuffe to Macbeth, his is the one performance here that made me happy to be watching The Alchemist rather than some other play. ★★★☆☆

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