Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 12 September 2015
Trevor Nunn’s production of Volpone at the RSC’s Swan sagely contends that the sins of greed and avarice are timeless. With Ben Jonson’s 17th century comedy set squarely in a modern Venice, if some of Ranjit Bolt’s occasional script revisions are schoolboy clumsy (silly references to Greece and the Euro pop up), they can be forgiven in a plot in which incredible complexities may not have weathered the test of time as much as the brilliant observation of the flawed human condition that makes this play so entertaining.
At the play’s core is Henry Goodman’s titular oleaginous oligarch. Prosperously tanned and every inch a convincingly very rich man, Goodman channels his Auric Goldfinger, Albert Steptoe (there’s even a hint of a betrayed Max Bialystock at the end of act one) into a masterful performance. Goodman’s first appearance in Stratford since his 2003 Richard III, he works well under Nunn’s direction – and his devious deception of the circling townsfolk who crave his as yet un-bequeathed wealth is a fine performance of classical comedy. Aside from his commanding presence, Goodman’s rapid costume changes, grotesque make-up and sublime voice work – his/Volpone’s Scoto the Mountebank alone justifies the ticket price – make for a display of stunning stagecraft.
Matthew Kelly’s Corvino, married to the beautiful Celia who Volpone desires, offers up a delicious caricature of monstrous misogyny as he views his trophy wife as little more than a consumable artefact in his pursuit of Volpone’s wealth. Rhiannon Handy’s Celia is a pleasing turn, but it is Annette McLaughlin’s Lady Politic Would-Be who steals scenes. McLaughlin’s character is also on the trail of Volpone’s wealth and her WAG-inspired performance, all glamour and selfies, is as gloriously clichéd in its conception as her applause-winning delivery is outstanding.
Orion Lee’s Mosca, Volpone’s assistant (reminding me initially of a slimmed down Goldfinger’s Oddjob) puts in a hard-working shift, but with a performance that jars slightly. No doubt this will settle down into the run.
There are some neat touches. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ minimalist set includes a stock exchange crawler that allows Volpone to track his own corporation’s share price, (code “VLP” natch), whilst Jon Key, Ankur Bahl and Julian Hoult as Volpone’s dwarf, hermaphrodite and eunuch respectively, make high camp fun of their scene-setting parts, amidst some witty rap routines.
Women may be marginalised in this celebration of bumbling buffoonery, but Volpone’s cynical observation that “conscience is a beggar’s virtue” can ring as true today as in Jonson’s era. With high camp farce and a classy lampooning both of the rich and those who fawn upon them, Volpone is well worth a summer’s visit to Stratford.
Runs until 12th September 2015