Volpone, or The Fox

Ben Jonson
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
(2004)

Set in Venice but with obvious references to what the playwright had witnessed in England, Ben Jonson's comedy about greed and corruption in the aristocracy potentially still has great appeal and relevance. Volpone is faking a mortal illness so that other noblemen, in the hope of buying his favour and become the sole heir in his will, bring him expensive presents. The real deception, however, is carried out by the clever, smooth-talking servant Mosca, who later tries to use his skills to put one over on his master.

This production - which looks, with its tiled walkways and Perspex-covered rippling water in the centre, as though it is set in a swimming baths - is rather uneven. There are some very funny moments and some wonderful performances from all of the actors, but at times it is quite dull and some of it comes over as being rather gimmicky.

Gerard Murphy plays a Volpone who looks as though he has taken great advantage of his wealth for high (and low) living and displays great contempt for his victims and plenty of self-satisfaction for his own cleverness. Stephen Noonan gives a very impressive performance as Mosca (which, despite the play's title, is really the major role), changing his accent depending on whom he is talking to in order to seduce them and displaying quite a repertoire of impressions from Harold Steptoe to Tony Blair.

The trio of Volpone's servants played by Tom Godwin ('The Dude'), Dominic Burdess ('The Nun') and Sarah Desmond ('The Nurse') look like they are on secondment from the Rocky Horror Show; their physical antics are impressive and funny, but they often seem more like a side-show than part of the play. Michael Carter, Gareth Thomas and Stephen Marzella create some excellent and very distinctive characters as Volpone's victims who are trying to inherit the riches he is conning out of them.

Director Greg Hersov has assembled a talented cast for this production, which has some very funny moments, but overall it is over-long and does not quite hang together.

"Volpone" runs until 27 November 2004

Reviewer: David Chadderton