Trevor Nunn has created a strikingly intelligent production of Volpone that is very sharp indeed in its observations of the corruption of a class-ridden, greedy, wealth-hungry society and also at moments both poignant and searing. It is a darker look at this play than I have usually seen – don’t expect the non-stop hilarity and sentimental satire of the stereotypes that are usually the emphases. These are present, but this production is complex and non-monotone. This is a view of the play is rounded, droll, multi-layered and ultimately bitter. But it also takes full advantage of all the japes and vaudevilles written into the text, and is shot through with a true commedia dell’arte atmosphere while being provocatively set in a contemporary world.
This Volpone production take the play more seriously than is usual and for me the updating to the current world of banking crises, con men and shenanigans of the City and law courts really made sense of the text in new ways and added some new insights. The vaudeville aspects were even more hilarious when offset against this interpretation and the audience was rollicking with delight at the performance I saw.
The approach of this production gives the various themes of this truly impressive work of art real clarity and, I find, that the sour taste, bitter reflections and sadness it provoked midst all the fun now linger in the mind like the aftertaste of a particularly good wine.
In Henry Goodman, Nunn has found his perfect Volpone. Goodman’s physicality is astonishingly rich and delightful and you can read Volpone’s every thought and volatile change of mood in his face. Goodman is able to be outrageously clownish at times; he brings out the sardonic side regularly; he is cheeky and appealing as required; and he does all the disguises and different voices and accents with great aplomb and total conviction. This performance alone would justify attending this production. His versatility and energy draw the audience’s attention and sympathy strongly to him despite his being such a scoundrel; partly because he is so adept in all that he does and partly because the characters he is gulling are so much more awful than he is (and so much more stupid – the intelligence of Volpone is very clear in this interpretation) that you hope for his victory despite everything.
By contrast, Rhiannon Handy as Celia and Adny Apollo as Bonario are the perfect moral young things of innocence and integrity at the other end of the scale without being cloying. Miles Richardson is outstanding as the prototype of the shifty and greedy lawyer, Voltore, especially when he has his brief attack of conscience; and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corbaccio and Matthew Kelly’s Corvino are also memorable. Annette McLaughlin is simply wonderful as Lady Politic Would-Be, a modern day Kardashian clone followed everywhere by her film crew, a live reality show in motion on stiletto heels.
The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis perfectly supports the approach of this production and is also extremely attractive in a post-modernist way. I thought the handling of Androgyno (Ankur Bahl playing a kind of Conchita of European Song Contest fame), Castrone (Julian Hoult) and Nano (Jon Key) were particularly striking. The tone of the whole had an individuality and confidence that illuminated the play and made one understand its multiple strengths.
For me the one weak link as the evening was unfolding seemed to be Orion Lee’s Mosca. But then, by the end, I realized why. I had come into the theatre as one often does with preconceptions: in this case, of Mosca based on earlier productions I had seen in which he is much more a co-conspirator of Volpone’s and also on the lookout for his chance from a very early stage. In this new RSC production he is the servant and very aware of the class difference because the class structure and hierarchies are made very clear; and Mosca only spots his chance and gets up the nerve to pursue it fairly late on in the proceedings. Once he does make up his mind, however, he is dangerous and immoveable. I do have a couple of quibbles about Lee’s performance, but in the end the interpretation of Mosca is consistent with this strong individual production.
The approach of this production seems not to be to everyone’s taste; but for me it is a brilliant tribute to the wit and serious moral purpose of Ben Johnson and a worthy presentation of this exceptional, powerful play.