For the third weekend in a row, we met up with Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters for an afternoon of culture and drama. It was the Countess who was particularly keen on seeing this production, immersed as she is in all things literary and old, and that’s not just her husband. I’d read the play when I was younger but none of us had actually seen it on stage, so it was about time we got ourselves some education. So if, like Mrs Chrisparkle, you thought Volpone was Ben Jonson’s more successful prequel to Volptwo, maybe it’s time to reacquaint yourself with some Jacobean dramatists. Whilst Shakespeare continues to make his presence felt in every outdoor summer venue and traditional theatre space at least once a year, his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries sometimes get overlooked. For at the same time that Shakespeare was whacking out King Lear, Jonson was proposing a very different kettle of fish in the guise of Volpone.
Guise is a good word in the circumstances, because Volpone – the man – is the ultimate dissembler. In reality a hale and hearty manipulator of idiots and lover of riches, to the outside world he is a feeble old man, languishing on his sickbed, dribbling incontinently into a spittoon. When not creating that illusion, he might be pretending to be Scoto the Mountebank, or a courtroom official, or any number of bogus creations. With its carefully chosen Italianate names for its characters, Jonson created the classic satire on greed. It’s set in Venice, where Volpone (the fox) with his co-conspirator servant Mosca (the fly), attempt to outwit the wealthy Voltore (vulture), Corbaccio (raven) and Corvino (crow), to prove that fools and their money are indeed soon parted, preferably in Volpone’s direction. Innocents are drawn into his web of deceit, like Corbaccio’s son Bonario (kindly) and Corvino’s wife Celia (heavenly). In a subplot, we are introduced to Sir Politic Would-Be (at the time politic meant “scheming” or “sly”), his garrulous and airheaded wife the Lady Would-Be, and the traveller Peregrine, whose name means…er… traveller. In a very moral resolution, the good, the bad and the foolish are all shown to be precisely what they are, with the wrath of the courts coming down heavily on the transgressors; with liberation and exoneration as the reward for the wronged.
With its completely original plotline, many consider this to be one of the finest Jacobean plays – certainly of the comedies. It is, however, rather long-winded. Structurally it starts with an elaborate opening scene where Volpone and Mosca fleece and con the three fools individually, and I sense that the more you emphasise the differences between these three characters, the funnier it is. It then breaks away to the street scene where Sir Politic and Peregrine have their conversation, giving Volpone and his entourage time to re-create themselves as Scoto and his team, which gives rise to a lengthy performance by Volpone-as-Scoto, encouraging his audience to buy his amazing cure-all oil. Finally, Volpone wins the attention of Celia – which is what all this has been leading up to. Benjo allows Scoto to rule the stage, and extemporise at length – and I really do mean at length. My own feeling is that it was because the original Volpone was played by Richard Burbage who was the Laurence Olivier of his time; the longer he was on stage, the happier the audience would be. Once Corvino has taken his revenge on Celia for her sassy behaviour but nevertheless agreed to offer her to Volpone for sex – yes this is quite an adult Jacobean comedy – humiliation and disgrace is the inevitable outcome for all concerned.
Trevor Nunn has created an updated version of Volpone for the RSC. No sense of Venetian gondolas and canals remain in this stark modern environment, where entrycams show us who’s knocking at Volpone’s door, video projections display the allegedly sick Volpone’s feeble heartbeat and erroneous blood pressure readings, and with a click of a button we can even see the stock exchange figures scroll past whenever Volp wants to play the markets. Overhead cameras show the sexy modern bed on which he plans his liaison dangereuse with Celia – you can just imagine that he would threaten to upload a coital video to YouTube in order to extort extra dosh. Sir Politic Would-Be points out how many followers he has on his iPad; and Lady W-B is followed everywhere by a camera crew. For me, the most effective use of the camera was during the court scene, where Volpone stops the proceedings to have a little private soliloquy whilst everyone else stands stock still as if frozen in time. The camera that was targeted on the judge also freezes and goes from colour to black and white, then resumes in colour again when life carries on. A relatively simple effect perhaps, but really arresting.
Not only is this a modern, technological age Volpone, it’s also a world where celebrity rules, which gives plenty of opportunities for telling juxtapositions between the 17th and 21st centuries. The programme credits translator and updater-extraordinaire Ranjit Bolt with “script revisions”. There are certainly plenty of these, most notably perhaps in the Scoto scene where the majority of Jonson’s original text has been replaced by a brand new speech. Fair enough; that’s in keeping with it being a cadenza-like sequence where the words and gestures play to the actor’s strengths and allow him simply to entertain to the full. However, I think it’s regrettable that Mr Bolt decided to retain Jonson’s original concept of this being a long scene. Funny and innovative as it is, it really does go on too long for no apparent plot progression benefit. It’s like one of those interminable drum solos in a concert that shows off the performer’s skills and range, and is very entertaining whilst it lasts, but then when you move on you can hardly remember it. As an aside, I realised when watching this scene the derivation of the word mountebank – because Volpone sets up a bench/table (bank) and stands on top of it (mounte) to deliver his spiel. You probably knew that already.
But where the production and its technological vision really works is with the characterisation of Lady Would-Be. A vacuous glamour-puss from the Katie Price/Made in Chelsea stable, she preens and pouts her way through the show whilst always ensuring the camera gets her best side. Her attendants are make-up girls and hair stylists, haute couture-shopping bag carriers and minders. Living life for her reality show, everything is captured on film until such time as she might be seen in a bad light, when she turns off the charm (such as it may be) and the cameraman gets the unsubtle call to “cut”. A great source for humour, and totally in keeping with the modernised version of the character, it was particularly funny in the courtroom when Lady W-B realised the trial was being televised, and thus kept bobbing about like a Hallowe’en apple trying to remain in shot. You can even follow her on twitter @LadyP_W.
At the heart of the play is a bravura performance by Henry Goodman as Volpone. He is perfect for the role, being very experienced at playing the dominating central character of many a fine production. We saw him in Chichester as Arturo Ui and he was mesmeric. In the course of this play he has to perform many parts, all of them Volpone. His transitions from one to another are seamless. It’s particularly enjoyable in the opening scene where he quickly changes from the fit-as-a-fiddle fox to the invalid in his domestic hospital bed. In a split second he ages about forty years; in “All the world’s a stage” terms he goes from the fifth age of the Justice in fair round belly, to the seventh, sans everything, in a snap. But all his characterisations are rounded, individual, and well considered to give maximum comedy value. It’s a very fine performance.
Buzzing around Volpone is Mosca, the fly, or, as more pejoratively termed, his parasite. Mosca is a constant presence, reliably assisting Volpone with his mischief and crookedness, darting here and there to serve and to misrepresent. He is His Master’s Voice where it comes to liaising with the three fools, trying to out-donate each other where it comes to adding to Volpone’s collection of riches. It’s an assured and cheeky performance by Orion Lee on his RSC debut, very believable as Volpone’s Rottweiler in his dealings with the outside world; just maybe when the tide turns and Mosca is in the ascendant, trying to outwit his master, he lacks a certain gravitas in the courtroom scenes.
Of the three dupes attempting to get their mitts on Volpone’s legacies, I was most impressed by Miles Richardson as Voltore the lawyer, with a good level of pomp and decency, which gets blown apart in the courtroom scenes where he is run ragged by attempting manipulation after deviation. He gives a great comic performance. A chip off the old block, he has much of his father Ian Richardson’s slightly lugubrious stage presence which is perfect for the humiliation of his general unravelling. Matthew Kelly is a very stern and unyielding Corvino, which works very well when he’s dominating his wife, but I felt there wasn’t a lot of light and shade in his performance. Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corbaccio is a deaf and doddery old thing, and, despite it being a good performance it makes you realise that, as a character, it’s something of a one-trick pony. Once you’ve laughed at his deafness a few times, there’s not a lot left to laugh at.
There are, however, some terrific other performances. The always excellent Steven Pacey as Sir Politic Would-Be is an avuncular and persuasive presence in his rich but tasteless clothes, stringing out fanciful plots and nonsensical concerns to the mild amusement and subsequent deep annoyance of Peregrine, an energetically youthful portrayal by Colin Ryan. In this modernised version, Sir Politic doesn’t get disguised in a tortoise shell but is squeezed into one of his wife’s outfits, make-up and beard at sixes and sevens, looking like Conchita Wurst after a hard night on the town. Mr Pacey carries off his shame with a nice mixture of anger and resignation. He is matched by the wonderful Annette McLaughlin as Lady Would-Be, capturing all that essential hollowness of a wannabe reality star, a bitch when thwarted, control freak par excellence, the true definition of beauty being skin-deep. Her stand up argument with Peregrine is theatrical bliss.
Jon Key, Ankur Bahl and Julian Hoult give good outlandish support as Volpone’s triumvirate of servants, representing the full range of humankind – you have to ask yourself, why Volpone does choose to be surrounded by a dwarf, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch? What was in the person spec for those job descriptions? Their mini-shows to entertain Volpone are well performed but, rather like the Scoto scene, tend to act as a pause-button to the play as a whole rather than driving on the drama – but that’s Jonson’s fault. Andy Apollo and Rhiannon Handy as Bonario and Celia don’t have a lot to do apart from outraged indignation, but they do it very well.
You come away from this production part impressed, part exhausted; the modernisation works well provided you don’t mind liberties being taken with a sacred text – not that it’s that sacred – and it offers several excellent performances. On the other hand, the play lasts three hours ten minutes, which is quite an ambitious project if you’ve just had a nice lunch with a bottle of Chablis, and you do get the feeling that there were some self-indulgences that could have been stripped away to bring it in at a more reasonable two and a half hours. But nevertheless it’s enjoyable and inventive, and when everyone gets their come-uppance at the end, you feel that justice has been done. Only a few more performances left, so you’d better get in quick.
Production photographs by Manuel Harlan.