Golden oldie

Theatre - Katherine Duncan-Jones on a production of <em>The Alchemist</em> that has the Midas touch

Ben Jonson's most inventive city comedy was written in the aftermath of London's severe plague outbreak in 1608-9, and during a time of frantic greed and ruthless social climbing. In the publicity for Present Moment's gloriously colourful and energetic production of The Alchemist, it is claimed that the play has been "transposed to mid-1980s Docklands when stock-market deregulation, soaring property prices and 'Greed is Good' reigned supreme". I was afraid that we might be encouraged to jeer too much at those amusingly bad old days, perhaps even being permitted collectively, from the comfortable high ground of new Labour's second term, to feel good - something Jonson certainly never liked his audiences to do.

Fortunately, the publicity is misleading. The production is more complex than its write-up suggests, and much less overdetermined. Any 21st-century smugness we may bring with us to the Riverside Studios receives a wholesome battering in the course of the ensuing two hours. Aptly, given the company's name, Joss Bennathan's production turns out to be wholly of today, and its satire repeatedly bites home. Although its visual style alludes fitfully to the 1980s, the performance as a whole constantly reminds us how many of the crazes and "lifestyles" launched in the 1980s are now going stronger than ever, especially the ones that our churchgoing forebears would have labelled "superstitions": astrology, New Age therapy, Chinese medicine, style make-overs, "life coaching", feng shui, even witchcraft. All, in a truly Jonsonian manner, are fields that permit their less scrupulous practitioners to extract huge sums of money from eager clients - what Jonson called "gulls", and we call "suckers". When the simpering Abel Drugger ( an irresistibly sweet performance by Ben Enwright) asks for help with the arrangement and "branding" of his tobacco shop to maximise profits, we are taken straight into the contemporary world of marketing and PR. There is also just as much interest today as there was in 1985 in the domestic doings of the rich and famous. There's an uncanny topicality in The Alchemist's slippery protagonist Face, alias Jeremy, who is revealed in the closing scenes to be a dodgy young butler who has made his own profit out of his employer's knick-knacks. Sound familiar?

Instead of representing the interior of a Jacobean gentleman's town house, the set by Jens Demant Cole suggests an upmarket hydro or health farm. Seven shiny black doors with smart red tassles lead to mysterious regions behind, the grandest, double one in the centre concealing the cramped and grubby privy in which the yuppie lawyer Dapper (David Florez) is to be painfully incarcerated - a joke Jonson himself would have relished.

The text has been neatly trimmed, but not updated. It doesn't need to be. It's astonishing how well all the alchemical gobbledegook still works when delivered with sufficient panache - it was ridiculous then, it's ridiculous now - and the same goes for the play's celebrated one-liners, such as "We shall have a salad!" or "Thou look'st like Anti-Christ in that lewd hat".

It is often offered as a truism that Shakespeare's comedies have survived because of their timelessness, while those of his brilliant contemporary Jonson are irrecoverably sidelined by their insistent topicality. Yet, as this production shows, there is a point where topicality and timelessness converge. For young male audiences, I suspect, Jonson's savage comedies may be a good deal more appealing than Shakespeare's gentler ones. Compare the opening words of As You Like It - "As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me . . . by will but poor a thousand crowns" - with those of The Alchemist: "I fart at thee". Might this be the moment for the thoroughgoing revival that Jonson's comedies, some of them never performed in modern times, deserve?

The Alchemist is at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6 (020 8237 1000), until 2 February

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Time to bite back?