Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The current RSC production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the Swan Theatre must rank as one of their slickest, funniest and most glorious productions yet. It has certainly been my highlight of the year.
First, the plot. The eponymous anti-hero, Volpone (The Fox), has a lot in common with Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Both are charismatic and seemingly amoral individuals with a covetous love of wealth. But both have passions which are ultimately more powerful than their greed. Where Barabas had a pride which when offended drove him to the most horrible acts of revenge, Volpone’s early and enduring flaw is a need to use the greed of other wealthy men to con them out of their possessions. As the victims of his plots are themselves so unappealing, the audience’s sympathies cannot help but side with the flashy and witty Volpone. The plot owes much to popular stories about wily foxes which lay down in fields pretending to be dead. When a bird comes to feast on the corpse, the fox springs into action and banquets on the carrion bird instead. In Volpone, the wealthy fox pretends to be
All is going well and Volpone decides to take his plan to the next level: his parasite Mosca encourages Corbaccio with a scheme to guarantee a place in Volpone’s will. If Corbaccio alters his will to leave his estate to Volpone, despite having a son of his own, then the dying Volpone will surely make Corbaccio his heir out of gratitude. The flaw in Corbaccio’s thinking is that Volpone is actually in the prime of life and it is Corbaccio who is the doddering old codger. The plan is working well until Mosca lets slip to Volpone that the young wife of Corvino is exceedingly beautiful. After going out in disguise and seeing her for himself, Volpone develops a passion of another sort. He and Mosca fashion another scheme so that Volpone can have his way with Celia (Rhiannon Handy). Mosca lets Corvino know that Volpone’s doctors have suggested that sleeping with a young maiden would aid his recovery and that by lending Volpone his wife, Corvino will guarantee himself a place in Volpone’s will. Since Volpone is apparently a drooling, near-comatose invalid, what could be the harm? Unfortunately for Volpone, his two clever schemes become tangled and things begin to go awry…
The stage setting is a real treat. Volpone’s house is like a modern art gallery, all shiny whiteness with his wealth displayed in stylish glass cases. Volpone has a remote control on which he can turn on his CCTV when guests arrive at his door, as well as a large digital stock market ticker surmounting the set. The whole effect is that of a rich and discerning connoisseur. Unlike recent RSC productions, in which the costumes have been somewhat disappointing, in this case the stylish suits of the greedy and the outlandish attire of Volpone’s troupe of freaks are a perfect accompaniment to the elegant set and lively story. Volpone’s regular changes of appearance from powerful grandee to dribbling wreck are impressive, if somewhat revolting up close (think streams of bilious snot hanging off an old man’s chin).
Volpone’s four greedy victims are well-cast. Miles Richardson as Voltore makes an excellent posh but amoral lawyer, Matthew Kelly as Corvino is again excellent (following his turn as a lusty friar in the Jew of Malta) as a buffoonish no-nonsense northern businessman, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corbaccio is likewise again excellent (following his turn as Kelly’s equally slimy and hypocritical brother friar in the Jew of Malta) and Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic Would-Be plays an excellent tartish gold-digger from a slightly lower societal echelon (Eastenders-esque). Orion Lee’s Mosca is a model of understated, servile cunning, manipulating his social superiors with élan. Volpone’s also gets his kicks from the entertainment provided by
More than anything, this play gives licence to its leading actor to showcase his talents – and Henry Goodman is clearly very, very talented. The shifts from ailing invalid to wily Machiavel are dazzling enough as displays of raw panache, but then he takes the RSC to another place entirely in the balcony scene. Disguised as a charismatic street vendor, adopting a thick Italian accent and hawking his ‘miracle’ juice (‘To buy or not to buy, that is the question…’), Volpone becomes a different kind of conman entirely, and the results are genuinely hilarious. There was even a touch of improvisation when Volpone interacted with an audience member and received an unexpected answer. In the attempted seduction scene, Volpone shifts gear again and becomes an energetic, if unsuccessful, singing Lothario. Again, credit should be given for the set design: the neon lights, ‘sexy’ music and the bed rising through the floor are like something from a teenage boy’s fantasy circa. 1975. Cheesy, but a perfect match for Volpone’s animated self-confidence. Eventually, Volpone’s tragic flaws are his need to screw over the other characters and his overweening self-confidence. Like the Jew of Malta’s Barabas, Volpone cannot quit while he’s ahead and he tries one more jape out of ‘sheer wantonness’. But Goodman makes what is really an unlikely act of hubris look entirely natural.
This production was marketed as an analogy for the greed and corruption that is so often blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. This connection is strained, partly because Volpone is so clearly more interested in the human aspects of wealth acquisition (getting one over on his rivals) rather than any City slicker hunger for big bonuses. But partly it just wouldn’t work because the play is not a simplistic morality tale about the dangers of corporate greed. Luckily, the marketing doesn’t match the reality and there is no sustained attempt to stress the topicality of Volpone vis-à-vis today’s greedy bankers. Besides the stock market tracker in his living room, Volpone’s only business dealings are the con tricks he inflicts on his friends. Volpone might be a bit of a Bernie Madoff, but Madoff was really a sideshow to the main event. The other small flaw in the production is there in the original. There is a parallel plot involving Sir Politick Would-be which has almost nothing to do with the main story concerning Volpone and it looks like an entirely superfluous effort to add some buffoonish humour to a play that really doesn’t need it.
This is a high-spirited play, joyful and boisterous, but it is also refined. The balance that has been struck between these two aspects should probably not be a surprise from a director as renowned as Trevor Nunn and an actor as versatile as Henry Goodman. Go and watch it.