LONDON at the turn of the 17th century; the dawn of modern capitalism, and the sudden emergence of a whole class of nouveau riche types awash with cash, and ripe for exploitation by urban chancers and scam-merchants. So it was that in 1610, the great satirist Ben Jonson sat down to write The Alchemist; an immensely cheeky and preposterous city comedy in which two con-artists called Face and Subtle - one a servant left in temporary charge of a big empty townhouse, and the other with a gift for assuming the pseudo-scientific airs of an alchemist about to turn base metal into gold – pocket piles of cash from a band of foolish clients who range from a witless young aristocrat eager to meet the fairy queen, to a pair of money-grubbing priests from the local church.
The Alchemist, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****| An Inspector Calls, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ****
Gary McNair’s brilliantly witty new rhyming version transfers the action to vaguely-modern Glasgow in terms of language, but otherwise leaves the atmosphere of the play all but untouched, as the very creme de la creme of Scottish comic acting, led by Louise McCarthy and Grant O’Rourke as Face and Subtle, throw themselves with gusto into the play’s satire on the general idiocy of rich people with more money than sense. That Jonson’s play finds some powerful echoes in our own age of vast accumulations of private wealth is obvious. And although both Jonson and McNair tend to milk the situation just a little too long and repetitively, Andy Arnold’s joyfully frolicsome production is full of laughs from beginning almost to the end, when McCarthy and O’Rourke – fine actors both – get down to the nitty-gritty of what they really want from life, and confront us with a few bleak and sobering truths.
If there was ever a moment in British history when the power of the wealthy was briefly brought under democratic control, then it was 1945, the year in which JB Priestley completed his powerful political melodrama An Inspector Calls, in which the family of a wealthy Edwardian industrialist, Arthur Birling, are gradually brought to understand how each of them is implicated in the death by suicide of a working-class girl. The play is set in 1912; but Stephen Daldry’s famously brilliant and spectacular 1992 National Theatre production maroons it in a bombed-out postwar wasteland, with the Inspector, in a 1940s suit, apparently arriving from the future to challenge the Birlings, accompanied by a group of working-class street kids.
This time around, the fine Scottish actor Liam Brennan plays the Inspector, with a youthful anger and political impatience that gives a fresh urgency and dread to the drama; and Priestley’s terrific thriller-shaped plot unfolds with a deadly precision, gradually skewering the Birlings with the terrible truth that no man or woman is an island, and that all our actions and decisions have consequences, for others as well as for ourselves.