The Alchemist is "the first Whitehall farce in the language", according to Tim Pigott-Smith, who has just arrived in London with the joint Royal National TheatreBirmingham Repertory Theatre Company's production of Ben Jonson's classic. Pigott-Smith plays Subtle, the conning alchemist, on the Olivier stage. With him are Simon Callow as the master of disguise, Face, and Josie Lawrence as their accomplice, Doll Common.
The trio dupe a succession of greedy or foolish victims before they are divided by their own avarice when Lovewit, the master of the house and Face's employer, returns to plague-stricken London. Pigott-Smith likens their promises to turn base metal into gold to someone turning up on your doorstep and claiming they can help you win the National Lottery. In the context of newspaper stories about Madame Vasso and her plastic pyramid, it's clear that Jacobean society did not have a monopoly on gullibility.
Written in 1610, The Alchemist ranks alongside Volpone and Bartholomew Fair as one of Jonson's leading works. But, despite audience enthusiasm in Birmingham for Bill Alexander's production, Pigott-Smith is ambivalent about Jonson. "Shakespeare's characters are so rounded by comparison," he says, whereas Jonson's are satirical, two-dimensional caricatures, representing "humours" (hence the signpost names). This leaves less room for an actor to "inhabit".
The language, too, is undeniably difficult, full of circumlocutions, repetitions and alchemical hocus-pocus ("Jabberwocky", as Pigott-Smith calls it). "We have been quite free with it, while treating it with respect, and we've cut a lot. Just today [during the previews at the National] we've changed 'thrum' to 'slave'. During one after-show discussion in Birmingham - 125 people had stayed behind - we discovered that not one person knew the meaning of 'cozen', 'gull' or 'seraglio'." The first two, meaning to cheat and a confidence trickster's victim respectively, are central to the comedy. "Seraglio" has become "harem".
"You do have to 'sell' the play a bit," adds Pigott-Smith. "But we've never had any difficulty holding the audience; they really seem to enjoy it. Audiences clearly like seeing people have money taken off them.
"The essential Jonsonian qualities are speed and relish. And every now and again you get wonderful pictures of what London was like then, in the references to Blackfriars and Moorfields, where the beggars were."
Subtle, says Pigott-Smith, is not the most fun to play. He finds "the Anabaptist stuff" difficult because so many references no longer have any resonance. No doubt it was enjoyable at the time to see Puritans, who wanted to close the theatres, being satirised on stage. It is helpful to know, for instance, when much fuss is made of tobacco, that a principal Puritan objection to the theatre was that young people learned to smoke there. Pigott-Smith has made one particularly important decision about the part: "My notion is that Subtle really is an alchemist, that he has been imprisoned for it and that he is conning on the back of what he really knows about." While the other two conspirators adopt different characters, changing dress, accent and behaviour as necessary, Subtle "offers aspects of himself".
The world of The Alchemist is relentlessly sordid, its view of human nature jaundiced. "There is," suggests Pigott-Smith, "no spirituality" in the play, and he echoes Simon Callow's view that it is "ruthlessly masculine".
Bill Alexander's production is set in a harsh imaginary future, where costumes and set (a brilliant higgledy-piggledy edifice by William Dudley) seem to consist of leftovers from our own time forced into service to recreate an almost-forgotten past. The pentangle on the floor - a standard magician's signature - is made up of double yellow lines, and Subtle's crystal ball is a Belisha beacon.
On the London press night, there was much to enjoy even though the notorious Olivier stage had perhaps dissipated some of the energy we'd heard about from Birmingham. Here, more than anywhere, the kind of attack needed to cope with the language, what Pigott-Smith calls playing it "on the mouth", is paramount.
Peter Hall's ritualistic production of the Oedipus plays, with its masked chorus moving as a single entity, continues in repertory at the National Theatre. For tickets, 0171 928 2252; for information about Oedipus workshops, 0171 928 2033