Your browser is not supported. This might affect how the content is displayed.
Last week I managed to catch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Volpone at Stratford before the end of the run. I was looking forward to seeing Henry Goodman in the title role, as he is such a thrilling actor; I still have powerful memories of him as Kitely in the RSC Every Man In in 1986. His marvellous ability to create empathy was very much in evidence last week, though as things went on I came to think empathy is not the top quality one needs for Volpone, whose heartlessness and recklessness need equally to be on the top. Goodman managed to find some humanity in the character, but at some cost to the caustic humour and edginess.
The director Trevor Nunn moved the play (adapted and rewritten by Ranjit Bolt) into a topical space of high finance and digital connectivity. All references to Venice or Italy were cut, so we seemed to be in a contemporary modern city. London was implied, though never spelled out, with Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino as sharp-suited city types and an electronic ribbon of share prices flickering across Volpone’s bedroom. The only ‘Venetian’ element was Volpone’s disguise as Scoto the mountebank, here played as a cod-Italian huckster, heavily accented so as to seem outrageously foreign, whereas Sir Politic Would-be was no longer the hapless Englishman abroad but, well, just another Englishman. Ethnicities and accents were mixed: Mosca was Hong Kong Chinese, Lady Would-be had black and Asian ladies in tow, Peregrine was a young American backpacker, and Celia was a vulnerable east European wife whom Corvino had probably bought over the internet. We seemed to be in ‘our’ world rather than one viewed from a cool satirical distance, and the excision of local colour made it feel (to me) rather bland. Mosca told Lady Would-be that her husband had been seen with a woman not in a gondola but in the park (Hyde Park?); at the end he and Volpone were condemned to imprisonment rather than the galleys or the Hospital of the Incurabili. With each missing reference, one sensed some of the play’s specific satirical energy leaching out.
This Volpone lived in a depthless world of digital relationships and instant access to information. His key prop was the remote control that switched his bedroom data screens from share prices to CCTV to hospital monitors displaying his vital signs, and which cued up a new couch and moody lighting for the seduction of Celia. Sir Politic picked up gossip from his iPad, with his speeches rewritten to take in climate change, the future of Greece and the euro, all jokes that went down well with the Stratford audience. The centrepiece was Annette McLaughlin’s Lady Would-be, reinvented as a Kim Kardashian figure accompanied by a stylist, PA and cameraman, living out her life on reality TV and instagramming photos of herself by Volpone’s bed. She too was a big hit with the audience, particularly in the first courtroom scene in which, filmed as a live broadcast, she became desperate to insert herself in front of the camera. Sir Pol’s humiliation happened on the internet, as he was filmed for future uploading on the mobile phones of Peregrine’s friends. He disguised himself not as a tortoise but in his wife’s clothes, a change which lost the symbolism but helped to draw together the two halves of this strand. I was pleased that Would-bes were retained (I can’t remember seeing them in any recent revival) but it did underline how overloaded the play can become. Judging by the responses I overheard afterwards, although people laughed at the Would-bes it wasn’t clear they always understood why they were there – which may well be Jonson’s fault, not Nunn’s.
Amongst the blizzard of information, Volpone’s ability to live a secret life was pretty plausible, as was Celia and Bonario’s inability to explain what was really going on. Goodman’s Volpone impressed by its range, as each disguise was entirely convincing, with a complete transformation of voice and appearance. There was a huge gulf between his drooling and lank-haired invalid, his slick and pony-tailed Scoto, and his common-as-muck court officer: no one would have recognized them as the same person. The mountebank scene was a highlight, with the speech reworked as an ‘Only Fools and Horses’ sales pitch and Goodman talking directly with members of the audience on their own health or the correct pronunciation of English words. On the other side, the gulls really deserved to be rooked, especially Miles Richardson’s smugly self-satisfied Voltore and Matthew Kelly’s elderly and revolting Corvino. Voltore’s loss of dignity was especially amusing, as he attempted to keep control of the courtroom’s twists and turns, ending exhausted and with clothing askew, while Matthew Kelly’s performance was wonderfully selfless, ditching personal vanity so as to appear as repulsive as possible.
The weak point, alas, was Orion Lee’s Mosca, who was physically and vocally very underpowered. Inevitably this impacted onto the central relationship, as little seemed to happen between him and Volpone. This sucked the energy out of the final act, where the power-play between them did not come into focus, and Volpone’s final self-discovery lacked any sense of shock or triumph. Curiously, the figures who did emerge strongly were the dwarf, eunuch and hermaphrodite, each very distinctly characterized, given significant stage business, and functioning as a real family group. Here, one felt, was Volpone’s genuine domestic life. He took pleasure in them rather than in Mosca, the emotional turning-point coming in the tiny vignette Jonson inserts into the second court scene when Volpone meets his three ‘children’ wandering in the streets and realizes he has forfeited his home. This brief scene, played poignantly, was the moment at which Goodman’s Volpone seemed finally to lose heart.
Underneath his disguises, this Volpone was a surprisingly normal figure, who came across as charismatic only when he was playing parts. On his own, he was low key, melancholic, and reflective: for example, in the soliloquy at his return home after the first courtroom scene, in which he appeared almost enervated. Goodman is not a physically imposing actor, and even the rape scene was conducted without urgency and at a low level of vocal intensity (not helped by Rhiannon Handy’s assumed east European accent for Celia, which blunted the dramatic effect by making the dialogue difficult to follow). My overall sense was that all the energy came in the evening’s first half, and that after the interval Volpone dwindled, and the production with him. His final unmasking involved no grand gesture, and he walked off the stage calmly and without much complaint. Here, one felt, was an ordinary man succumbing to everyday life rather than an exceptional trickster launching his final suicidal gamble. Goodman’s great success as Kitely in Every Man In was in persuading us of the human being inside the Jonsonian eccentric, but as far as this play is concerned, I guess I prefer my Volpones supersize.
Martin ButlerShare on Twitter Share on Facebook