Ian McKellen Stage
Credit: Hewison
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THE ALCHEMIST

Written by Ben Jonson (adapted by Peter Barnes)
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Ian McKellen in the role of Face
Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon; Aldwych Theatre, London, Stratford-upon-Avon; London
19 May 1977 - January 1978
Society of West End Theatres (SWET) - Best Comedy Performance

Words from Ian McKellen

When the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1976 production of Macbeth transferred the following year, from The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon to the over-large main stage across the road, we started rehearsing The Alchemist for TOP and the London season to follow.  I had never seen the play and was appalled on reading Ben Jonson's dialogue to discover how the verbose and often archaic lines masked the wit and basic humorousness of the characters.

The play's structure mark it out as one of the greatest (and earliest) of classic farces so I was relieved that Peter Barnes (a proven comic playwright) was drafted in to amend and tidge in order to clarify lines and moments that, despite everyone's best intentions, might well be lost on a modern audience who didn't have the benefit of the footnotes which are essential when reading the text.  This was a more extreme version of what I have always done with a few words that regularly crop up in Elizabethan plays.  For instance, changing Shakespeare's “presently” to its modern equivalent “instantly”, is commonsensical.

In 1965, I had approved of the few clarifications that Robert Graves made to Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre, although they horrified some academics and bang-on-cue the intellectual and over-intense critic Bernard Levin lambasted our Alchemist on the predictably pompous grounds that as he had no problem understanding Jonson, what did it matter if others did have?

What was a worry was Barnes' further involvement in the production.  While Trevor Nunn was attending to RSC business elsewhere, Peter took over rehearsals for a vital two weeks, during which the cast floundered somewhat and longed for Trevor's organisational qualities rather than Peter's "That was fine: now let's run the scene again" approach.  A farce needs a strong, even dominating, director.

The play was well-cast. When I was awarded a Wedgwood urn by the Society of West End Theatre for Face, I gave its lid to John Woodvine, whose Subtle was indeed subtle but also gloriously expansive.  It must have been fun for our audiences to see Macbeth and Banquo letting their hair down as a couple of con men, particularly as they were in the company of the Third Witch (Susan Dury as Doll).

Chris Dyer's wooden set was an ingenious warren of levels and corridors with 13 doors, which were flung, banged and generally abused in punctuating the action.  It was built out of second-hand materials in keeping with the policy of TOP designs being done on the cheap.  All was well until halfway through the transferred run of the play at the Aldwych Theatre, then the RSC's London home.  One evening, as Face was surprised by the return of his master and a crowd of creditors arrived to unmask his shenanigans, I, as usual, shut the front door in a hurry.  It passed right through its lintel where it stuck giving free access to the angry mob who had to pretend that nothing untoward had happened. I tried to barricade the doorway with furniture.  Agony for the actors.  The cruel audience shrieked with delight.  Trevor Nunn sent an internal memo which I hope he won't object to my now making public 25 years on. — Ian McKellen, August 2003
Comments and Reviews
Stratford:19 May - 18 June 1977
London: 29 November 1977 - January 1978

"Ian McKellen is mercurical, switching impersonations like a magician. His final reversal to the servant, Jeremy, carries total conviction. The actor's energy and sharpness of definition are astonishing to behold." — Frank Marcus, The Sunday Telegraph