Director Paul Burbridge on relocating The Alchemist to Coventry
The Alchemist was first performed in 1610; why do you think the play has remained relevant to audiences over the years?
As writers of topical TV comedy or cartoonists like Steve Bell would tell you, good satire is only really enjoyed by audiences if it is effective in hitting its targets, so I suppose the reason why The Alchemist has had a long stage history from the 17th to the 21st century is because its targets are ones which continue to crop up. They are the familiar obsessions, vices and foibles of human nature, brilliantly displayed here in some wonderfully funny characters. And we recognise them in any society, mainly because we recognise the same traits in ourselves (though perhaps only admitted privately!).
In contrast to many other plays from the Shakespearian age, there’s a definite urban reality to The Alchemist which takes little adjusting to make it feel modern – quite similar in fact to the kind of satirical ‘sketch-based’ comedy which we are used to on television… except that here there is a great story-line which holds it all together.
The play was originally set in London; to what extent will this new version be adapted for Coventry audiences?
Ben Jonson wrote The Alchemist for a specific audience who knew the location and the community of the Blackfriars area of London where the play was first performed. The ‘now’ factor of the play is intensified by a sense of Neighbourhood Watch – with everyone enjoying the jokes and the references to pubs, streets and businesses which they might have been in only yesterday. The nervous laughter which the play creates is increased when you realise that the gang of rip-off merchants has moved into your city and you might be their next victim if you don’t watch out. So the production and the text will reflect a strong sense of place in Coventry and a resonance with characters and events which have hit our own headlines.
Are there any particular challenges in staging this play?
The main challenges are to do with keeping up all the levels of tension on which its success depends. For instance, in spite of its ‘medicinal’ purpose, the play feels like an early example of farce, where keeping up a fast, furious pace is essential to the comedy, as well as keeping the audience fully aware of each twist and turn in the plot – who’s in disguise, who’s locked in the toilet because they must not meet the person who’s coming up the stairs etc.
However ridiculous or absurd the scams are which the tricksters offer, everything has to be believable or the comedy falls flat – we have to believe that at any moment the gang will finally deliver for their customers that recipe of recipes which will turn a frying pan into bankable gold.
Sum up this production of The Alchemist in three words.
Topical, explosive, hilarious.