Volpone or the Fox

Ben Jonson
Red Bull Theater

Volpone

Ben Jonson has become flavour of the month at Red Bull Theater. The company has followed up its revival of the playwright’s Roman history play Sejanus His Fall with a staged Zoom reading of the far more popular Volpone.

One disadvantage of screening a classic around the globe is the danger that many viewers will have fond memories of iconic productions from the past. In the case of this critic, nothing is ever going to match future knights Michael Gambon and Simon Russell Beale respectively playing lazily imperious Volpone and wheedling Mosca at London’s National Theatre in Matthew Warchus’s unforgettable version in 1995.

However, that is history and there is every reason to enjoy Jesse Berger’s interpretation, first seen on stage in 2012 and now benefiting from “emendations & elaborations” by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. The formula has now become familiar, operating on the now familiar guidelines of this company’s welcome monthly broadcasts featuring actors performing from their homes spread across the United States.

André De Shields, who takes the title role, will probably be best known to British theatregoers for his starring role in Hadestown. The central double act is completed by Hamish Linklater, portraying the man who is accurately, if amusingly, described at times as “his Parasite”, Mosca. This satirical duo is clearly designed to exemplify bad behaviour in Venice circa 1607, where the two-hour-long drama is set.

The plot relies almost entirely on the presumption that man is by nature greedy. Indeed, the central character announces in his opening monologue that he is motivated by nothing more than a love of money. His means of increasing wealth is clever and involves persuading his almost equally avaricious and universally stupid fellow citizens to invest some of their own money or valuables in return for empty assurances that they will become his sole heir.

To gull them more successfully, Volpone gives a creditable impression of a man whose days are severely numbered, aided and abetted by the equally unprincipled Mosca. Lust also rears its ugly head, much to the horror of the prospective victim, Jordan Boatman playing Celia, who is self-cuckolded by her husband. A promising plot builds into a pivotal court case in which double and re-doubled dealing is rife.

As befits a play that depicts characters seeking excess, some of the acting particularly from the leading pair can be histrionic but, given all that is going on, that hardly seems inappropriate. As ever, Jesse Berger directs his cast expertly and with the assistance of some evocative music and delightful costumes convincingly takes us back to the 17th century. In doing so, this benefit reading conveys almost as much pleasure as we might get from viewing a full staging of a play that is still as entertaining now as it was 400 years ago.

While all of Red Bull’s worthy online productions are offered free of charge, in order to fund them and keep the company running into the future, viewers are encouraged to make suitably generous donations.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher