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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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The Alchemist

The Alchemist inhabited 77 Fairlie Terrace from top to bottom. With strobes in the ceiling and cameras in very nook, it claimed the building for its own. It also reached tendrils into the wider world, with screens showing scenes from Wellington. The ideal spectator for this production has six or so eyes which swivel independently of each other, and an extra ear.

The plot, like that of the much more traditional Northward Ho! which was staged earlier in the trimester, was a difficult devil to follow. Two con artists trick a range of rich morons into thinking they can make them rich through alchemy. The energy and intelligence of the actors made up for the fact that the audience was often confused; either these guys knew what they were talking about, or they were very good at making it look like they did. They jumped in and out of the text, commenting on it and enjoying it, broke into song, dance, 17th century cultural theory, and feminist theory in a healthily irreverent way. Tech people and musicians were dotted about in full view throughout the space, and sometimes jumped in and became performers.

The sheer technology was awe inspiring. Televisions were everywhere, and showed nearly a constant stream of images. Four closed circuit cameras were placed around the theatre, including one in the loo (there was a warning sign on the door.) The AV overload could have upstaged the actors, but they were lively, assured, and robustly physical enough to more than hold their own.

There was an overload of information, which meant that everybody picked out different aspects and pieced together a different show from the person sitting next to them. The production made the technology live as part of the performance, covering and scrutinizing the event as it unfolded. A handheld camera gave us a real-time view of events, like the big screen at a sports match, inviting us to watch the action carefully. The audience was in the round and had a huge range of different viewpoints. The moving camera meant we could choose between our own unique direct perspective and an equally live ‘official’ projected one, and consider what the real differences between the two were, both on the stage and in the context of the wider world, where the label “live” on a news report is supposed to be proof of its trustworthiness.

John Downie says in the programme notes that this production is more an exploration than a fully developed, finished work. It would have been nice to have seen the connection with the outside world, as in the video of a character’s supposed trip from the airport to the theatre, developed more fully. Though it was a work in progress, however, this most obscure play was energised in such a way that there was never a dull moment. Whether the production was working with the script or using it as an excuse for doing its own thing entirely is a tricky question, and was a key point of difference with Northward Ho! The Alchemist was an eccentric and ambitious piece of madness which managed to avoid the dangers of textual fossilization. Among the flashes and static there were definite sparkles of gold.

The Alchemist
Written by Ben Jonson
Directed by John Downie and Adam Donald
77 Fairlie Terrace
May 28 – 31

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