In-your-face drama with a sting

15th March 1996 at 00:00
Classicist, bricklayer, murderer: Ben Jonson was Shakespeare's reverse. Shakespeare never set a play in contemporary London; Jonson rarely set one elsewhere. Jonson was a cartoonist to Shakespeare's portrait painting. A great but difficult playwright in his works and as a person.

So for this updated version of The Alchemist, renamed Face, leave behind EastEnders' Albert Square and take a trip up West, to Jonson Square, in a Soho rife with betting shops and Middle East contract killers. It is a society where Hare Krishna devotees parade, and a sandwich-board man called Tribulation warns against protein. As Bob Eaton's lyrics, set to Julian Littman's music, put it, this is a society offering "anything you want" and where alchemy, transmuting water into oil, the 20th century's liquid gold, is the ultimate in entrepreneurship: "Something for nothing - that's alchemy".

Face (Jeremy Harrison) is the fixer, who has to replace a hard man's money after gambling it away. His one hope is to arrange a scam involving a fake alchemist aiming to part gullible government minister Sir Epicure Mammon from his cash by appealing to his greed. A number of Jonsonian points can be detected, the falling out among the thieves and the character of Doll Common, here a raucous whore. The style of the Bob CarltonPhilip Whitchurch book is in-your-face rather than subtle, with groan joke lines such as "That's capitalIt's money in the bank" and finally the rock musical "feel good" draws the Jonsonian moral sting. Theatrically colourful, dramatically monochrome, Face is too far away in tone and, eventually, plot, to be a substitute for the real thing. But its modern dress exuberance gives a clear sense of the rascality usually left lurking under doublets and ruffs.

Flesh Fly, a reworking of another Jonson play, Volpone, borrows its title from the derogatory description of Volpone's agent Mosca. Trevor Lloyd has adapted Ben Jonson's rare excursion from London for Graeae, a theatre company of disabled performers.

Besides offering a vigorous, visually lively spectacle in Ewan Marshall's production, it provides a double-take on a play where the central character spends much of the time faking illness and where actors take on the aches and pains of age as Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino. Is that walk and are those vowels natural to the actors or part of the act? Are the actors' natural movements part of the act? How about the singers taking on dialogue as a non-speaking performer signs? This production sparks off several questions about the nature of theatre, pretence and, therefore, Jonsonian trickery. Certainly Nabil Shaban's Volpone, upending himself on his wheelchair to receive an enema along with one of his gulls, is mixing life and art.

Lloyd mainly keeps to Jonson's script but in cutting the play to two hours and seven actors makes some startling elisions. Jonathan Keeble's Corvino is more shocking in his treatment of Neil Fox's cross-cast Celia for being a youthful Viking hero lookalike. They are not even newlyweds: Corvino offers this Celia to Volpone immediately before their nuptials. Volpone is presented as a lively intelligence combating boredom by exposing the greed of others. Graeae's adaptation makes Jonsonian points: there's nothing like the desire to acquire to part a fool and his money, and how close a link there is between hypocrisy and sleaze.

Face: runs 2 hours I0 minutes, Southampton Nuffield until April 6 (01703 671771), Watford Palace April l0 - May 4 (01923 225671), Coventry Belgrade May 8 -18 (01203 553055). Flesh Fly: runs 2 hours 15 minutes. Tours until March 30. Details: 0171 267 1959.

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