July 26, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
Volpone (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
If Trevor Nunn’s superlative production of Volpone established just one thing, it is that Jonson’s finest play (cue debate) demands a tour de force performance from its lead. In Henry Goodman, Nunn found the perfect shapeshifter. Goodman, a stage stalwart without the celebrity baggage that fixes the persona of some other leading actors, had the time of his life as the chameleonic malingerer, putting in at least four sterling performances during a roaringly funny evening that softened some of the edges of what can be a dark play, but compensated with sheer delight at the theatricality of disguise and role play.
The production was updated intelligently to a contemporary Italy, the modernisation not gratuitous but situating the issues of greed in a culture of speculative investment and debates over public accountability. A running ticker with stock market updates kept the hedge fund analogy in play, but segued seamlessly into a heart monitor when Volpone assumed his disguise in a hospital bed surrounded by nurses. The shallowness of a society dominated by money (here, embodied in electronically controlled display cases of jewellery, gadgets and briefcases) was aligned disquietingly with surveillance society, from Volpone’s CCTV-protected front door to the court cameras and reality TV tropes that pervaded Venice.
Volpone’s ultra-modern, sparsely furnished home bespoke a certain level of boredom, especially with his wealth stored out of view. Spinning on an office chair with Mosca at his side (Orion Lee, recasting the parasite as an imported, immaculately dressed top-rank manservant), Volpone seemed at a loss for things to do. Nano, Androgyno and Castrone took a prominent role as his in-house entertainers but also pretending to be his nurses, and a lot of comedy was drawn from their individual characteristics. Jon Key’s Nano managed the house, his deep voice leading the trio’s songs; Ankur Bahl wore a Conchita Wurst-style sculpted beard and towering stilettos; and Julian Hoult’s towering eunuch wore a white fright wig and a constant giggle that evoked Mel Smith’s albino jailer in The Princess Bride. But despite this talented trio, Volpone’s attitude in the home was one of boredom, leading to his recklessness and Mosca’s rise.
Volpone’s gulls were sensibly updated businessmen. Miles Richardson was perfectly cast as the eloquent Voltore, upright and initially unflappable, until his rage began taking over as he found himself disinherited. His final abandonment to fake possession and exorcism in the final scene was a wonderful moment of over the top acting as the lawyer threw himself, thrashing, to the floor. Geoffrey Freshwater made for a doddery and occasionally even sympathetic Corbaccio, especially as he tried to work out what was going on, but his hand-rubbing pleasure in Volpone’s imminent death mitigated against any sympathy. And Matthew Kelly was a Liverpool bully made good, his aggression and hauteur barely concealed by his suit. Kelly straddled the line perfectly between making his Corvino a ridiculous gull, too self-obsessed to understand the tricks played on him and easily flattered, and on the other hand sustaining the temper and incipient violence that made him a genuine threat.
Celia was here imagined to be a Russian mail-order bride, imprisoned and emotionally crushed by her husband, and there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in the otherwise unnecessary decision to have Celia kiss Bonario passionately in front of Corvino in order to mock him as he was finally escorted from the court. While Andy Apollo’s Bonario was unmemorable in an unmemorable role, Rhiannon Handy did an excellent job of showing first her thrill of escapism as she threw a handkerchief to ‘Scoto’ in the streets, and then her survival tactics as she listened, obediently and sobbing, to her husband’s abuses. Volpone’s attempted seduction initially carried the potential for comedy as he flicked switches to bring a circular bed out of the floor and pipe romantic music from the speakers, but as she pleaded passionately for escape, he chained her to the bed with bondage gear and proceeded to attempt to rape her, shifting the tone of the scene firmly from comedy to a moment’s horror. While it made sense in the tone of the production for her to kiss Bonario at the play’s end, it was only a small reclaimed victory.
The last set of updatings were similarly fully realised, making sense of the Sir Politic subplot. Clearly realising that the point of this allusive and self-referential storyline is to comment on contemporary attitudes to politics, Nunn and Ranjit Bolt (credited with script revisions) fully rewrote the scenes featuring Sir Politic and Peregrine, keeping the structure and sense but making reference to contemporary conspiracies and news stories, from Ebola to crop circles. Sir Politic curated a Twitter feed about these conspiracies and looked suspiciously around him at all times, seeing global consortia manufacturing crises that only he knew how to circumvent. This ex-pat (Steven Pacey) was perfectly balanced by Colin Ryan, whose Peregrine was an American student with braided hair and backpack, looking to learn about the local culture and realising quickly that Politic would be an entertaining companion. The tortoise-shell trick was replaced with Politic desperately putting on his wife’s clothes to avoid capture by some fake FBI agents, leading him finally to accept that he needed to grow out of his theories.
Lady Politic (Annette McLaughlin), meanwhile, was a reality TV star with a cameraman and two make-up artists always in attendance. With the camera always on her, it was imperative that she look immaculate at all times, and much humour was made at her expense from her artificial breasts, her tottering heels and her perfect beehive. Shifting between fabulous costumes, her experience within the play was entirely about herself, whether taking selfies with the sickly Volpone, staging a confrontation for the cameras with Peregrine, or sashaying into the court, and Mosca’s final shaming of her left her floundering. While the Politics had only one brief scene together, the two were brilliantly aligned in their misapprehension that the world was only interested in what they were doing, and both were humiliated for this delusion.
The play, however, belonged to Mosca and Volpone. While I wasn’t always convinced by Lee’s handling of the verse, which felt flat at times, he perfectly captured the quiet threat of the servant who gradually takes on more privileges, and the moment where he demanded the keys to the house from Nano felt significantly dangerous. His self-assertion, growing from a sense of entitlement, was not as finely distinguished from the other tensions in the play as it needed to be for a full impact, but he possessed himself well and grew into his confrontation with Volpone. There was an underexplored racial dimension to this too, acknowledged when he asked Corvino if the pearl he brought was Orient; as Mosca stood before the court, the penalties against a non-native implied something interesting about fears of Chinese infiltration in the global marketplace.
Goodman, meanwhile, moved with extraordinary dexterity from role to role, stealing every scene in which he appeared. Even as the corrupt guard in the final two scenes he was hysterically funny, whispering and winking at the gulls to anger them further while chortling to himself. In his sickbed, he donned an impressive disguise included a wig with frayed hair and capsules that allowed him to drool blood, and commanded a range of performances from palsey to hacking coughs, while perfectly managing the occasional lecherous eye when money or women were in the room. But his outstanding performance was as Scoto in an extraordinary Mountebank scene, completely rewritten with contemporary jokes about the ineffectiveness of the Euro for the Greeks and spurious anecdotes about selling brain medicine to Shakespeare. Using the different levels of the Swan audience as his potential market, and wearing a toupee, bright purple suit and ludicrous Italian accent, Scoto overwhelmed all around him, his charisma and energy reducing the audience to hysterics.
The joy of playacting was thus shared by Volpone and audience, especially during the lengthy scenes of him assuming and taking off costumes while onstage, aligning the audience with Mosca as supportive adviser. Yet the pleasure in watching his plans unfold was muted by his own boredom, and as the play rushed to its climax it seemed that Volpone was running out of things to take pleasure in, making his final self-exposure inevitable. The court scenes were surprisingly relaxed, perhaps because of the screens relaying the faces of the three judges and the slightly chaotic organisation of speakers and witnesses. Yet as the final judgement came, the production curiously softened its morality. Mosca was punished merely with prison, and all of the miscreants were hurried directly offstage as soon as they were sentenced, leaving no opportunity for reflection or reaction, even for Volpone. Yet while the severity of the law was not felt, the advantage of this decision was that the three judges were eventually left alone on stage, the quietness of their final comments on the rule of law given no visible or audible opposition. The calm confidence of this conclusion was immediately matched by Volpone sauntering back on stage and asking for the audience’s applause – given rapturously.