Ben Jonson
Fire Under the Horizon
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Volpone Credit: Jenny Bosworth

A pale face peers from a huge bed with red coverings. Above it hangs a reproduction of the Haywain triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. Two figures appear in white doctor’s coats with stethoscope and other equipment—one tall, one dwarfish—apparently to give medical attention. All this before the lights go down.

A pulse-like music starts after a time changes to a different rhythm and then explodes in jangling pop making the figure jumps from the bed and start to clothe himself. It is, of course, the Fox himself, Volpone.

The opening overture is too extended, especially for an audience many of whom have already been sitting waiting for the play to start, but now, as characters flood onto the stage, the pace is frantic. In a balletic whirl, a cocktail party is suddenly in progress. Volpone, now jacketed in red and snorting cocaine from a silver salver, no longer an invalid but a young swinger who is soon embroiled in a copulating threesome. Lights flash in and out of blackout to show us complex sexual moments. It is probably meant to be shocking and titillating but since it is so contrived and he keeps his pants on it actually seems rather coy.

A final blackout and the lights come up on an exhausted Volpone next morning. His servant Mosca, whom this production makes female, sends his bedfellows packing and wakes her master. Now, after director Kris Hallet’s trip of fancy, Jonson’s play begins. It is not a bad way of suggesting Volpone’s hedonism and venality before displaying his greed but if he lives it up so publicly it rather undermines the core idea that the people whom he cons into making him great gifts believe they are winning a place in the will of a sick man near to dying.

It is modern dress, there is even a photographer at the party—wouldn’t the press pick up on some juicy gossip? Perhaps we just have to accept his gulls come from a different section of society that wouldn’t read such stuff. Greed has made his victims, all named after birds of prey, oblivious of anything except their hopes of huge inheritance.

Designer Sarah Dutton has kept things simple with unobtrusive costume, except for Volpone’s youthful jacket and the red dress of the women he lusts for. His red and purple strewn bed dominates the stage and everything happens around it. This is confusing for the scene outdoors where Volpone, pop-singer-styled, serenades Ceilia at her window. It doesn’t work to stand him on the bed to strum his electric guitar. The scene needs placing to indicate changed location, as for court scenes after the interval when the bed is struck and then hastily reassembled when needed.

The text has been quite heavily cut, which isn’t surprising, but there is no jarring updating to the text and a nice touch that when Volpone calls for his gown (all reference to his vulpine furs is gone) he is slipped into an open-backed hospital gown by Mosca.

Mosca is not the only character that has changed gender. Is that to make any point? We don’t need reminding that greed is not sex-linked, presumably it is just a way of including more women in the company. It works perfectly well and allows an intriguing twist in characterising Mosca. Lyndsey Beauchamp plays her not only as romantically attached to her master but exploits her sexuality with his victims, pleasuring them to Volpone’s voyeuristic amusement. There is a lovely moment when, straddling Corbaccio, she also masturbates his walking stick.

When Thomas Judd’s Volpone demonstrates his venality by copulating with a silver plate; it seems a bit excessive but his greed produces an imbecilic facial distortion that perhaps explains why this man can slip so easily into his palsied invalidity. He delivers Jonson’s lines with intelligence, as do all this company, but too often they speak at such a pace that they have no time to think them which makes them less believable, and Jonson’s complexities less easy to comprehend.

Ioan Gwyn’s Corvino is bursting with angry energy; Tracey Pickup’s lawyer Voltore makes her one of those smooth operators that get estate agents and solicitors such a bad reputation, John Conway is bent double as Corbaccio and Sophia Marlowe an elegantly attractive Ceilia who, like Gary Roe’s Bonario, are innocent of knavery.

Some of the other characters are missing but not Volpone’s house entertainers (though what role they have in a modern household I am not sure): Edward Charles Bernstone (seen a few months ago as the Union Theatre’s Patience) sadly gets only one short song as Castrone and Rachel Denning is a spirited and charismatic dwarf Nano—and both double as the judiciary in a court scene, perched on pedestals.

It is a hard-working cast so why, on press night, were they getting so few laughs? Too fast I think—the audience were concentrating on understanding—but played too forcefully as well. Comedy needs a lighter touch. The balletic opening prepared one perhaps for some commedia dell' arte stylisation, but what we got included caricature (probably intentional) and overplaying, both ways of being artificial but not consistent.

However this was a first performance in the venue in fringe festival conditions, so perhaps the company will strike a better balance when played in. Or perhaps director Kim Hallett was less concerned with laughs and more with lecturing: throughout the play there is that triptych hanging overhead. It is unlikely that many in the audience would be able to distinguish its detail but, if they already know Bosch’s painting well, they may remember that it depicts the journey from Eden through earthly life to Hell, a reminder perhaps that this is intended as a moral story.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton