Volpone at the Royal Shakespeare Company (https://www.rsc.org.uk) Swan Theater, Stratford-upon-Avon, 17 July 2015.
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson
Sir Trevor Nunn’s assignment for his return engagement with the Royal Shakespeare Company turned out to be Ben Jonson’s tricky 1606 play Volpone. The resulting concoction—a modernistic production set in present-day London rather than seventeenth-century Venice—leaves the audience very entertained, especially by Henry Goodman’s stellar performance in the title role, though devotees of Jonson’s play are left a bit less than fully satisfied.
The RSC production opens as Goodman’s Volpone and his “assistant”—substituted for the more complex “parasite” in Jonson’s original—Mosca (Orion Lee) are reveling in Volpone’s greed-gotten wealth. The very modern set design by Stephen Bromson Lewis and video design by Nina Dunn imply that Volpone is the chair of a successful corporation: he and Mosca display excitement when the ticker that moves above the stage shows “VLP” stock up sharply. In a key moment, however, the vigorous and dashing title character is quickly transformed (with a little help from Mosca and a makeup kit) into a truly ill-looking man in a hospital bed. The sly duo are now ready to receive today’s offerings from the greedy social climbers who wish to inherit Volpone’s wealth after his (seemingly) imminent death. This initial scene of Volpone’s instantaneous alteration from robust to moribund, as well as another early scene, in which Volpone transforms himself into a snake-oil-selling quack—not for money now, but in a ploy to catch the attention of the beautiful Celia (Rhiannon Handy)—are two great theatrical moments. Goodman’s extraordinary versatility is showcased in his Volpone—a character who himself plays several roles requiring dexterity and versatility.
Set against this tour-de-force, however, some of the other roles cannot help but suffer by comparison. Lee apparently chooses to play the crucial role of Mosca as hard to read, and thus the audience feels very little for or about him. Handy’s Celia seems flat, and a vague eastern European accent that appears partway through her performance is confusing. However, the American accent that Colin Ryan attempts as Peregrine is simply ludicrous. Unless Nunn was trying to indicate that everyone in the play might be assuming false identities underneath false accents—in which case he outsmarted his audience—there is a lot of work left here for dialect coach Edda Sharpe.
Nevertheless, Jon Key as the “dwarf” Nano, Ankur Bahl as the “hermaphrodite” Androgyno, and Julian Hoult as the “eunuch” Castrone—all these outdated terms are Jonson’s, by the way, and not updated in the production—really shine in their roles as Volpone’s personal entertainment troupe.
Key especially, as the avuncular leader of the trio and keeper of the all-important keys, brings a confident energy and likability to Nano, one of the play’s few sympathetic characters. Key also performs Steven Edis’s contemporary settings of Jonson’s songs with admirable sprezzatura. Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic Would-Be convincingly joins the throng of sycophants looking for Volpone’s inheritance, adding a touch of psychological vulnerability to the omnipresent avarice that motivates almost every character in the play.
The subplot involving Sir Politic Would-Be (Steven Pacey) has been substantially altered from Jonson’s rather difficult and time-bound original, with the result being some rather overwrought references to current events. Such “script revisions” (credited to Ranjit Bolt in the programme) are presumably intended to keep the play’s theme of greed relevant to a twenty-first-century audience—though that hardly seems necessary. Replacing time-bound 1606 allusions with time-bound 2015 allusions does not always work. For example, a joke about the Greek fiscal crisis that surely seemed fresh and clever during June rehearsals was already stale by July—and this production runs until September 12. T.S Eliot’s well-known maxim on Ben Jonson is selectively quoted in the programme, making us to understand that the key to appreciating Jonson is not so much “putting ourselves into seventeenth-century London as . . . putting Jonson into our London.” One is left to wonder how Eliot might feel about these words from his 1921 work The Sacred Wood being printed in the programme on the backdrop of a glass skyscraper in a production that features references to nanotechnology, reality television, and the Euro.
Despite its awkward moments (and a rather long wait for the interval break), this Volpone is impressive. A technical masterpiece, changes of scene and mood are deftly accomplished with the aid of video projection, Tim Mitchell’s lighting design, and a mixture of recorded and live music under the direction of John Woolf. It also bears mentioning how refreshing it is to see such a truly diverse cast in this play, and indeed at all of this summer’s RSC shows. It seems audiences in Britain are fond of star-driven productions these days, and this collaboration by star director Trevor Nunn and star leading man Henry Goodman will not disappoint fans of either. Fans of Ben Jonson, however, may wish to go to a café after the curtain call and read a bit of his Volpone.