by Ben Jonson
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Script Revisions by Ranjit Bolt
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Wednesday 15th July 2015, 1.30
Trevor Nunn’s return to The Swan Theatre which he founded, is a major RSC event, and of course, a full-on major production. The play is pulled from its 1606 origin into 2015, with script additions. There’s the pleasure of cast familiarity too, as it’s playing in repertory with The Jew of Malta and Love’s Sacrifice. It’s been a terrific season. This one takes place in Venice, just like both The Merchant of Venice and Othello, currently playing next door in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Volpone (Henry Goodman)
The cultural references are nonstop. Volpone’s ‘parasite’ (butler, servant, co-conspirator) Mosca is Oriental (echoing both The Pink Panther series and Goldfinger). Rich men’s wives have Russian accents, stock market prices flicker across the screen. Lady Politic Would-Be is accompanied by a cameraman at all times as well as lovely assistants. She pouts at camera, then looks up at the video monitors to check what she looked like. Volpone’s feigned illness is high tech with monitor readings replacing the stock exchange reports.
L to R: Assistant (Gabby Wong), Lady Politic Would-Be (Annette McLaughlin), Assistant (Marcus Griffiths), Nano (Jon Key)
Volpone is about greed and desperate acquisition which resonates with the days of bank bonuses. It’s also about tricksters and con-men, and Volpone is the ultimate. He should really be sending out thousands of e-mails revealing that as a Nigerian prince he needs to unlock millions in a Swss bank account, just send him your credit card details (a missed opportunity here), but he is stuck with a 1606 con. He’s childless and extremely wealthy. He promises to make gullible rich people his heir, in exchange for them making him their heir, and giving him lots of valuable gifts. He has three main marks or victims: Voltore, a lawyer; Corbaccio an ageing and deaf landowner, and Corvino a rich businessman (and jealous husband).
Lady Politic Would-Be (Anette McLaughlin) and Volpone and a Selfie
His fourth visitor and hanger on is Lady Politick Would-Be (a horribly strained name I’d have changed) a sort of super-model married to an English knight who never stops talking. Volpone dreads her visits and tries to put her off. As the Italian names indicate, the play’s characters are painted with a broad brush. Do not look for three dimensions. Volpone is from the Italian for fox, Corvino from raven, Corbaccio from crow, Voltare from vulture, his servant Mosca from fly, and all the retinue names are self-evident.
L to R: Mosca (Orion Lee), Corvino (Matthew Kelly), and Volpone (Henry Goodman)
Volpone’s system is to feign imminent death, this exciting these marks who wish to be his heir. He works with Mosca, his sidekick and servant, played by Orion Lee, a Hong Kong Chinese in a shiny round-collared suit. He has a wonderful retinue consisting of Nano, a dwarf, Castrone, a eunuch and Androgyno, a hermaphrodite. Androgyno is done up like Conchita Wurth the Austrian transvestite winner at Eurovision, with a beard and mini-skirt. Nano has a resonant and powerful voice. He gets patted on the head by Lady Politick Would-Be a few times, and his appalled reactions are great.
Volpone with Castrone (Julian Hoult), Androgyno (Ankur Bahl), Nano (Jon Key)
I had heard that Henry Goodman was one of the great actors of modern British Theatre, but had never seen him. The man exudes charisma, and is a fine actor full of subtlety and winks and nods and creative readings of lines. It’s a role for such an actor. First he has to do the greedy, rapacious, filthy-rich Volpone. Then he has to do the palsied drooling invalid, apparently semi-comatose but showing reactions as soon as his marks turn their backs on him. Volpone disguises himself as Dr Solto, an Italian snake-oil salesman, a mountebank selling remedies so that he can get a glimpse of Corvino’s lovely Russian wife, Celia. That is the most marvellous piece of the play, as Goodman in black beard, purple suit, blue shirt and red tie does a long sales pitch in an Italian accent. This must be where the “script revisions” roll in, because he talks of euros, the Greek economy, the NHS, bodies encased in concrete by the Mafia. It is clear to me that the great humorous audience-directed speeches in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama of this nature allowed for improvisation, They invariably work best with space for the actor to work the crowd, and this was brilliant. He asked where someone came from … Mexico … and immediately it’s Salud. There were a couple of truly outstanding “script revisions” in there, but no plot spoilers. Afterwards, I read the original with its references to various Cardinals and yes, it’s right to update it.
Volpone’s aim is to get Celia in his bed. Mosca is sent to persuade the jealous Corvino that only a young woman can help Volpone, and gets Corvino to offer his wife to lie in Volpone’s bed (he assumes Volpone is long impotent). As we had just seen the overbearing Corvino put a security tag on Celia’s ankle AND produce a metal chastity belt AND order her t0 walk backwards at all times, this is a turnround showing how far he’ll go for money.
Meanwhile … we have two other plots going on. The boastful Englishman, Sir Politic Would Be, is describing his ideas, or rather get-rich-quick schemes to Peregrine, an American backpacker. This is a less-integrated plot, except that carrying on the mischief, Mosca tells Lady Would-Be that he saw her husband with a harlot. She goes off with retinue to confront him, and assumes that Peregrine is the harlot dressed as a man, so attempts to undress him.
The other subplot involves the deaf Corbaccio and his son Bonario. Mosca lets Bonario know that his dad is about to disinherit him and leave all to Volpone in exchange for becoming Volpone’s heir (assuming Volpone has only hours to live). He tells Bonario to go to Volpone’s house and hear this for himself.
Volpone and Celia (Rhiannon Handy) as he triesd to seduce he
At this point, Volpone is about to drop his sickbed disguise and leap on top of the frightened Celia, offered up by her husband. Bonario saves her at knifepoint, and knocks Mosca down too.
They’re about to be reported to the authorities. The lawyer Voltore is to defend Volpone in front of three judges. Mosca and Volpone decide to tell the court that Volpone has died. They then decide to have fun with the marks. Volpone writes a will leaving all to Mosca, so that he can watch their reactions. and Henry Goodman appears in his fourth disguise of the evening as a cheerful loveable Cockney security guard.
Volpone as guard (Henry Goodman) and Voltore the lawyer (Miles Richardson)
Mosca being as great a crook as Volpone decides he might as well really be the heir. They both end up before the court again and are sentenced to long imprisonment. Volpone gives a little speech to end the play.
I loved the play. I loved the production. The trio of marks were a great team of “more mature actors” … Miles Richardson was a powerful advocate as Voltore, Geoffrey Freshwater an addled Corbaccio and Matthew Kelly a nasty suspicious and bellowing Corbaccio. Lady Politic Would-Be and retinue were hilarious. Every part worked … you’d rarely single out a “judge” but Richard Rees ruled that court with a rod of iron. The multi-ethnicity of the cast rolled in an unforced way (for a change). Our only disagreement was Mosca. It’s the second biggest role in the play. We both thought he looked perfect and had excellent movement and facial expression. I thought the Hong Kong accent impaired transparency early on until we got used to it. My companion disagreed.
There were set piece songs with Volpone’s retinue of three, and music was used during speeches … it doesn’t always work, but here it was seamless. Henry Goodman also has a fine singing voice.
Wider view of the set
Interestingly, this was a “very RSC” show in strong contrast to the “very Globe / Wanamaker” productions we’ve seen recently. There is a strong stylistic difference … but high concept, modern dress, fantastic set and lighting is the RSC’s strongpoint.
Good biography of Ben Jonson.
While the articles on con-men and scams, is interesting (the one on wealth is a bit obvious), these articles didn’t enlighten me on the play or the production concept, except peripherally … that’s why it’s set in 2015. I would prefer more on Trevor Nunn’s concept,
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Many of this cast appear in:
Geoffrey Freshwater as Corbaccio is an RSC Associate Artist – recent ones reviewed here: