In his director’s note for The Alchemist, Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino makes a preemptive strike against the argument that he should have set the early seventeenth century play in “our own era”, saying that it adds “a needless layer of complexity to an already challenging text”. Intriguing defensiveness aside, the problem with this statement is the conflation of the terms “complex” and “challenging”. When Cimolino calls Ben Jonson’s long-con farce “challenging”, I think he must be speaking to how difficult it is to stage effectively and how complicated the plot is to follow. His mistake, however, is in thinking that something so complicated cannot stand to be made more complex.
Sitting through nearly three hours of the dreadfully dull machinations of three unlikeable characters played by three extremely charming performers (Stephen Ouimette, Jonathan Goad and Brigit Wilson), I longed for complexity, for strong character motivations beyond ‘get rich quick’ and themes more stirring than “greed, lust and folly” (as Cimolino lists them in the program).
In my review of Soulpepper’s Bedroom Farce earlier this year, I conceded that sometimes farce is necessary as a likeable surefire hit. It’s sensible for commercial companies to program a certain number of easily digestible trifles in order to facilitate the existence of meatier, scarier, more rewarding pieces like Oedipus Rex (one of Stratford’s biggest triumphs this year). Take The Sound of Music, for instance. No one is going to argue that Stratford staging The Sound of Music in 2015 is any sort of real artistic achievement. It was a commercial decision meant to appease the subscriber base and sell some family tickets, and it worked. I’m so cool with The Sound of Music being a part of this season (programmed opposite another piece from the same era and writing team when the festival has yet to produce a single musical written after 1980? That’s another story) but I’m cool with it for exactly one reason- The Sound of Music is good. With The Sound of Music, director Donna Feore made me thoughtlessly happy for a few hours and that is, in no way, a waste of a night at the theatre. The Alchemist is not The Sound of Music; it’s not even Bedroom Farce.
The Alchemist is as slow as it is empty, as long as it is dated, as unfunny as it is honestly just kind of embarrassing (it’s going to take some time for me to forgive Cimolino or Jonson or whomever’s fault it is for the depressing lows the great Antoine Yared is brought to in the attempt to wring a laugh or two out of a character named Dapper). Because the director of the play is also the Artistic Director who decided it was a play worth doing, there is no escape here. There’s no blaming it on an unsalvageable assignment or on a dud cast (this cast is killer, they deserve far better), The Alchemist was just one big bad call from an Artistic Director on severely shaky ground, unable to steady himself with his own directorial skill.
I suppose there’s solace to be found in the fact that Cimolino at least contemplated the idea of updating the play (I choose to believe in a world where he considered completely gutting it, delivering a bold reinterpretation for a modern time notably marked by “greed, lust and folly”) but perhaps it’s worse to know that he thought about it and actively decided that adding complexity was a bad idea.