There can be little doubt that Volpone, Ben Jonson’s 400-year-old satire on greed and moral corruption, is a play for our times. Trevor Nunn’s recent production at Stratford-on-Avon reminded us of this forcefully, casting the avaricious title character as a slick capitalist in a post-GFC world and featuring a revised text peppered with up-to-the-minute references.
In contrast, Nescha Jelk’s production (apart from a probably irresistible nod to Choppergate) doesn’t press the point. Jonson’s Venice, the commercial centre of Europe at the time the play was written, hasn’t been transposed to Wall Street or the City as might be expected, but to a sort of fading health club aesthetic, a retro, Wes Anderson-esque world of lost glamour and entrenched wealth and privilege.
Jonathan Oxlade’s two-tiered set impressively combines scale and detail, a huge series of Venetian arches doubling for the decayed opulence of the play’s exterior and interior spaces (though, strangely, the opportunity to point up the play’s beast fable elements by incorporating a stuffed animal head or two is missed).
Emily Steel’s updating of the text is barely noticeable for long stretches of the play but nevertheless takes some bold risks. As with other recent productions, the character of Sir Politic Would-Be has been excised (although Lady Would-Be remains, played by Caroline Mignone as a lustful social climber) and Volpone’s bizarre coterie of Nano the Dwarf, Castrone the Eunuch and Androgyno the Hermaphrodite are nowhere to be seen — sacrificed on the altar of political correctness or simply deemed superfluous, who knows.
Steel’s brashest move, however, is to lop off Volpone’s opening lines — ‘Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!/Open the shrine, that I may see my saint’ — and transplant them onto the play’s ending. At first this miffed me, seeming to undermine the brilliance with which Jonson foregrounds the play’s theme of the worship of money.
The results, however, more than pay off. For those unfamiliar with the text, the exposure of Volpone’s deathbed sham will be delectable. For everybody else, a delicious sting in the tail awaits that chillingly reminds us that there is one law for the political and economic classes, and one law for the rest of us. It’s a masterstroke that, by subtly invoking the lack of justice for the stockbrokers and mortgage dealers responsible for causing the GFC, undercuts Jonson’s overly neat finale and makes truer than ever David Cook’s observation that: ‘Samson-like, [Volpone] pulls down the whole construction of falsehood on the heads of victims and would-be victors alike, leaving himself supreme still amid the ruins.’
Paul Blackwell is ideally cast as Volpone. As with the suite of grotesques who will do anything to inherit his fortune (anything, we may well add after the current Prime Minister, except sell their arses — and even that they would have a think about) — Edwin Hodgeman’s velour-suited Corbaccio, Patrick Graham’s oily-haired Corvino, and Geoff Revell’s part-mobster, part-vampire lawyer Voltore — Blackwell’s Volpone is sleazy rather than slick, more Silvio Berlusconi than David Cameron.
Blackwell, a master clown, relishes the character’s flair for artifice. The snake oil scene, in which Volpone comes across as a nightmarish combination of Deepak Chopra, P.T. Barnum, and a secondhand car salesman, is a consummate display of physical and verbal comedy. Hodgeman’s wizened lecher Corbaccio is a delight, as is Graham’s unctuous but rage-filled Corvino, pitched somewhere between Basil Fawlty and Little Britain’s Lou and Andy.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, is James Smith’s turn as Mosca, Volpone’s fawning but ambitious pageboy. In his most substantial mainstage role to date, the young, charismatic Smith — shoulders stooped, head permanently jutted out at an improbable angle, long hair swept back into a greasy adolescent cascade like Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show — is a joy to watch. Alternately oozing and skittering about on faded New Balances, Smith impresses deeply in both his physical inventiveness and articulation of the text. If he were twice his age we’d say he was a great character actor but, on the strength of this performance, he already is.
Where this production falters is during the later scenes that take place in the scrutineo, or senate house, during which Volpone is put on trial for the attempted rape of Celia (Elizabeth Hay), Corvino’s wife who has effectively been pimped out by her husband as part of his increasingly desperate attempts to be named Volpone’s heir. Perhaps inevitably, the scenes slide into turgidly procedural courtroom drama and, despite Carmel Johnson’s best efforts as an enjoyably arch Judge, much of the onstage energy drains away.
I wondered if the actors could feel the cooling off of the audience during these scenes and responded, however unconsciously, in kind. Perhaps more cuts could have been made, but it’s equally likely that additional pace is all that’s needed to imbue these dead spots with some much needed dynamism. It is this dynamism, after all, that will sustain the audience’s interest through to the play’s novel and immensely rewarding denouement — rewarding, that is, if we’re still paying attention.
‘In so far as it is about particular figures,’ Cook noted, ‘the play remains a comedy; but as comment on society it is in deadly earnest.’ Even in the age of The Wolf of Wall Street — our very own beast fable — this production of Volpone confirms its enduring qualities as both comedy and satire, exuberant caper and cautionary tale. We never learn.