What: Volpone or the Fox
Who: Ben Jonson
Where: The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: July 16th, 2015
If I was going to see the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at either The Royal Shakespeare Theatre or The Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon or any of their increasingly frequent transfers to London, New York and the world at large, I would always buy a programme.
They are only £4 and reading between the lines, you will find an awful lot about the RSC’s goals in their production of the play at hand. You will then, in turn, get a feel for how their production will differ from the one you were hoping for (for some infamous examples, see my reviews of the 2011 production of The Merchant of Venice https://twilightdawning.com/2011/05/28/all-at-sea/ and the following year’s Troilus and Cressida https://twilightdawning.com/2012/08/13/remixed-shakespeare-for-the-hip-hop-generation/ amongst others). You will also find that sometimes the play production that they are presenting falls short of its own goals.
It has to be said that they rather telegraph their intentions. For example, we are told in the programme for “Volpone or the Fox” by Ben Jonson that Jonson is “The one (dramatist) whom the present age would find most sympathetic”. The implication is that Jonson is the playwright who has much to say about our modern world and its complex moral and ethical dilemmas and as far as this statement goes, this is true; perhaps even to a profound degree.
There are, however, two enormous leak-holes in the RSC presenting us with this quotation. Firstly, if we dig out our magnifying glasses we find that the statement was written in 1921 not 2015 – when the ethical issues may have been similar but moral views on them were very different. Secondly, we find when we see the play that the RSC does not trust its audience, in this instance, to figure this out for itself and think these through for ourselves. In short, we are not smart enough and the RSC directors and producers need to lead us by the hand to an alarming degree. This is seen in the way in which the humour of Jonson’s day which was aimed at his contemporary issues is exchanged piecemeal to references to Greek debt, 21st century bankers’ crises, global warming and etc. and etc.. And this is done in a way which has no regard for the rhyme, the reason and the poetry of the play.
Like “The Merchant of Venice” (https://twilightdawning.com/2015/06/15/i-understand-a-fury-in-your-words-but-not-the-words/ oh, old Gobbo where are you?) and “Othello” (https://twilightdawning.com/2015/06/15/i-understand-a-fury-in-your-words-but-not-the-words/ and the tale of the black Iago), before it, the RSC’s current crop of directors and producers are willing to do wilful damage to the scripts and MSS in order to find a play that fits their conceptualisation.
But, lo and behold, as in the case of the aforementioned two plays, they damn well nearly get away with it.
For whatever else this production of Volpone is, it is a really good night out at the theatre.
And this, like the current production of Othello is due not to directorial intent but to the winning presence and sheer acting talent of some of those in the principal roles.
The tour-de-force at the heart of the production and the reason that this play is worth leaving home for is Henry Goodman as Volpone who brings such a vigour to the portrayal of the lead character and very seldom puts a foot wrong. When he is seeking to seduce the easy-on-the-eye, Celia (Rhiannon Handy), he is compelling, when he is trying to rape her as she resists his intentions, he is truly frightening.
When he is sprightly and playboy-ish, he is believably less than his age, when he is pretending to be a broken down and sick man, he brings more to the role than the makeup and props could ever bring him. He may be the villain but he is a better man than any of the three he tries to trick, even when ultimately he fails – as he must. And it is Goodman who makes us believe that Volpone has some redeeming features for all the repugnance at some of his lesser qualities.
And there are other good things here. Steven Pacey as Sir Politic-would-be is good. Geoffery Freshwater as Corbaccio is solid. Jon Key as Nano the dwarf is engaging. Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic-Would-Be could have stepped right out of reality television and this is achieved by visuals and mannerisms and clever staging and not by toying with the script more than it will bear. The very familiar face of Matthew Kelly as Corvino makes us not wish to say “and tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be…” and that is an achievement in and of itself.
There are a few other strange decisions – not least why Ms Handy is saddled with a strange and unhelpful (for her and for the audience) central or eastern European accent but I’m guessing this is some sly comment on immigration and the way which treat those who come into the country. I’m guessing – like so much else this is an underdeveloped loose end.
Stephen Brimson Lewis and Tim Mitchell come together on stage-set and lights respectively and add much to our enjoyment and the visual appeal of the production.
Ultimately though most of the weaknesses in this play must be laid at the door and desk of director, Trevor Nunn and it is a wonder that the production rises above some – but not all – of those decisions.
We should be grateful for Mr Goodman’s return to the RSC because he makes this work to the degree that it does.