At first sight Neil Irish's black-walled set, multi-doored and ringed with an upper arcade seems a gloomy setting for a comedy but with a red couch against its chequered floor, warmed by Wayne Dowdeswell's lighting and its modern dress sporting white suits and bursting into clowning colour with Volpone's in-house entertainers, it sparks into life.
Volpone is a man stock-piling treasure, which this production does not put grandly on display but hides away in chests, secret compartments and beneath trap doors where what's thrown in tinkles on what's already sparkling there. We see only its lustre, reflected in golden light.
Jonson's four-hundred year old play is itself a treasure, a comedy that is still as sharp a satire on greed as when it was first performed. The cunning of Volpone, or 'the Fox,' is not financial acumen or playing the market. As he himself tells us: 'I use no trade, no venture I turn no monies in the public bank. Nor usure private.' Instead he plays on others' grasping nature, pretending to be old and ill and near to death while his servant Mosca encourages grasping others to win his favour by bringing gifts to win his favour and secure prime place in his will.
Jonson's gullible hopefuls are stock characters that owe much to the commedia tradition, a lawyer (Tim Treloar), an elderly gent (Maxwell Hutcheon) and a possessive husband (Tim Steed), whom he names after birds of prey, while they themselves are preyed upon. Jonson never asks our sympathy for them or explores their characters outside the machinery of the plot and, despite the modern dress, Elizabeth Freestones's production doesn't try to match them to more specific contemporary types or to draw precise parallels with the kind of personal and corporate greed that caused our current economic problems. Jonson was not writing a satire on capitalism but on the grasping instincts that drive it.
Richard Bremmer's eponymous Volpone is central to the play but, though his lanky, agile foxiness in tasselled smoking-cap has a vitality that contrasts with the tremulous invalid he pretends to be it does not dominate the play. From his first oil-gestured entrance it is Mark Hadfield's oily-gesturing Mosca who is centre stage, in a totally winning performance, beautifully played and beautifully spoken. He is not alone in a cast that speaks with clarity and intelligence. Some say Jonson's text is more difficult to play than Shakespeare's. If that's true, with this company you wouldn't know it; they give it pace and understanding.
Sometimes the pace is almost too fast. The odd trio of Castrone the eunuch (Edmund Kingsley), Androgyno the hermaphrodite (Harvey Virdi) and Nano (still called a dwarf though Conrad Westmass does not play him dwarfish), who look as though they have stepped out of a tinselled nineteenth century pantomime, are delightful but they go at such a rip that the verbal fireworks are almost overpowered by their physical antics - which are very funny.
A pair of English tourists who turn up in this Venetian setting provide an additional subplot that adds an element of confusion. James Wallace, his sunburn stopping where his hat hides his forehead, gives Sir Politic Would Be a proper pomposity looking kitted out for a week-ends shooting in Scotland and Edmund Kingsley is Peregrino. Though quite what Peregrino is up to and why Sir Politic should have a tortoise shell disguise ready and waiting managed to elude me.
After a long first half, which totally held, my concentration was probably flagging by this time. Though this production has made a few cuts, perhaps a few more might have been welcome. When played in the Jacobean public theatres, even as briskly as this, it would have had to be tightened up further to fit the playing time the law allowed them.
In repertoire with "The Duchess of Malfi" until 10th April
This production will be recorded for DVD by Stage on Screen who are co-producers.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton