Artwork for Volpone, featuring a fox diving into a pile of gold

June 15, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

Volpone (Red Bull) @ YouTube

The Red Bull’s Zoom-based production of Volpone reprised a celebrated 2012 production (both directed by Jesse Berger) in a fast and funny version that entertainingly capitalised on the restrictions of performing in isolation. Volpone is a play that always seems to feel timely even if, as here, it leans into the period setting, and the play’s dynamics of surveillance and asides lent themselves neatly to the isolated windows of webcams. With everyone the star of their own miniature screen, this version of Volpone used its clashing frames to stage the chaos of entrenched hierarchies being overturned in a struggle for gold.

John Arnone’s visual design placed all of the cast against a backdrop of Venice’s Renaissance canals, grounding the whole in a sense of place. This picture was surrounded by a gilt frame, as were the individual windows containing each actor, creating a literal portrait gallery of rogues, with location settings given on each, as if using Restoration scenic backdrops. This supported a presentational mode, in which Jonson’s satirical sketches looked even more like caricatures than usual. Performing directly forward to the screen, it was clear that each character was performing a version of themselves, grandstanding and self-justifying, their frames expanding to take up more of the screen. The suddenness of the Zoom windows allowed for some additional entertaining effects, especially as Lady Would-Be (Mary Testa) suddenly flashed onto the screen, physically displacing Volpone and Mosca from their spaces without warning.

For the many scenes of onstage surveillance, André De Shields’s Volpone floated up to the top of the main screen, his window shrinking to allow us to see his reactions while making clear his different levels of participation in the scene; a similar trick was used for his feigned illness, with him returning to the main block of windows when ‘awake’ and participating in a scene. At other times, the frames adjusted to signify shifting power dynamics. At the beginning of the assault scene, Volpone’s frame was kept small as he feigned illness; left alone with Celia (Jordan Boatman) the frames equalled in size, at which point Volpone threw off his disguise and cackled in delight at his self-discovery. For his serenade, his frame became circular and took over the centre of the screen, knocking Celia to the side and making clear that his wooing was far more about him than her, before the two evened out in size again to continue their struggle – until, at the point of crisis, Bonario (Clifton Duncan) suddenly appeared, imposed in between the two of them with sword already drawn and pointing at the camera.

The windows of Zoom don’t only allow for taking up space, though, but also for intimacy. Mosca (Hamish Linklater) in particular took advantage of close-up to lean into his camera and whisper confidentially to Volpone’s suitors. It was Mosca, too, who had the privilege of exchanging the play’s main objects, with documents, gifts, and even a cushion with which he and Kristine Nielsen’s Corvino plotted to smother Volpone, back and forth across Zoom windows, the objects creating bonds of complicity between Mosca and his dupe. What the production didn’t manage to capture was the fixed space of Volpone’s wealth, however – on stage, a fixed, located hoard that Volpone worships in his opening lines, here the brief appearance of a casket held by Volpone himself didn’t quite have the visual impact of what Volpone is acting to safeguard.

The performances were entertainingly larger-than-life. De Shields, often in elegant dressing gown, gloried in his own obvious intelligence, relishing every word he uttered and every revelation he performed. In some respects this Volpone was inscrutable, his motivations (beyond waking up and choosing chaos) unclear, but the production pitched the play for maximum fun rather than for pointed social commentary. De Shields’s mocking smiles from the top of the screen delighted in the downfall of others. By the time we reached the epilogue, his spirit was undiminished, Volpone leaning into the camera and turning his silky smooth tones on us, as persuasive as ever – and soliciting some pre-recorded applause in doing so, a reminder of his ever-manipulative tendencies that didn’t even need to wait for our own clapping.

Nielsen and Roberta Maxwell’s Corbaccio were particularly good value with their doddering and spluttering, and Maxwell’s use of over-sized ear trumpets made for some very fun mishearing scenes. Peter Francis James’s Voltore made less impact initially, but gave a brilliantly scenery-chewing illness/possession scene, thrashing as Volpone described his maladies before the Avocatore. Duncan was another highlight, his Bonario a gentlemanly chivalric hero, swashbuckling his way into the centre of action as if from an entirely different kind of play. But a huge amount of the burden was carried by Linklater, whose Mosca shifted through an extraordinary number of prop manipulations as he darted from plotting to performing to recovering from injury to taking on his next deception. The fact that Linklater’s microphone was massively louder in the mix than everyone else’s contributed in some way to Mosca’s dominance, but as with De Shields, what emerged from the performance was less a political or psychological exploration, and more the sheer energy and amusement needed to keep the plot progressing. This isn’t a criticism, but it’s interesting to see Volpone privileged as high-energy screwball comedy first and foremost.

Surprisingly, while the Sir Politic and Peregrine subplot was cut, Volpone’s trio of entertainers had their parts expanded, with new text by Berger and Jeffrey Hatcher. The trio were generally kept at the edges of the main screen or in smaller frames, demarcating their subordinate status until they were invited to perform their individual party pieces for Volpone. There were some nice touches here, from the horny Androgyno (Amy Jo Jackson) being shouted down by Volpone as she got too into ‘I Touch Myself’, to Nano (Sofiya Cheyenne) turning her circular screen into the Bond rifle title sequence before she began ‘Skyfall’. And the rest of the cast enjoyed moments of improvisation and modern jokes, particularly during the chaotic trial scenes during which the various suitors fought for screen space and spoke across one another.

The Red Bull offered a fun production, which felt light in its implications, leaving the severity of the final judgements feeling somewhat tonally odd, the production not having really delved into the more serious potential implications of the play’s greed. As so often with Zoom-based theatre, too, the spatial dynamics of shared-room theatre were missed, for all that the visual design worked to create spatial logics (most effectively during the scenes at Celia’s window, where the Zoom frames disappeared and a scenic window was put in its place). But what the production perhaps lacked in import, it made up for in silly fun, especially for a cast who looked like they were thoroughly enjoying every moment.

Posted in Theatre review