Sunday, 26 July 2015

Volpone – Swan Theatre Stratford – 24/07/2015

Greed, corruption, lust, vanity and the worship of wealth...

...the driving forces in both works I saw in the RSC’s Swan theatre this weekend (the second being The Jew of Malta). But, if the motivation had parallels and the venue and many of the cast members were the same, the two productions could hardly have been more different.
For their new Volpone, the RSC have not only produced a modern setting in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s designs but they have also tinkered with the dialogue, with textual revisions by Ranjit Bolt. The inclusion of references to social media and nano-technology (a clever play on the name of Volpone’s dwarf) is not going to sit comfortably with the purist, but in this refreshingly witty staging they add a contemporary edge to the humour that you can’t help feeling Ben Jonson would have approved of.
Movable translucent panels and full-motion display screens form the set, which morphs from scene to scene courtesy of Tim Mitchell’s high-contrast lighting and video designs by Nina Dunn. A ticker-tape display of stock prices and CCTV security images give way to heartbeat and blood pressure monitors when Volpone is on his sick-bed, and we see live video of Lady Politic Would-Be as she is followed about the stage by paparazzi. The cast organise their lives and take selfies with smart phones and tablets.
Casting by Hannah Miller is a stroke of genius, with perfect choices more or less throughout. Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly are splendidly obsequious as Corbaccio and Corvino, the two hopefuls trying to ingratiate themselves with Volpone so they might inherit his fortune, while Annette McLaughlin somewhat oversteps the line into caricature with her Lady Politic Would-Be. The trio of Androgyno, Castrone and Nano, played by Ankur Bahl, Julian Hoult and Jon Key, bring both sinister and pantomime elements to the piece, and turn out a couple of song and dance routines into the bargain.
Henry Goodman revels in the leading role, slipping in and out of disguise as he leaps into his hi-tech hospital bed and transforms himself into a drooling wreck, left with only a twitching hand and rolling eyes to perform his telling asides to the audience. His faithful, parasitic servant Mosca is played with poise and elegance by Orion Lee, one of several cast members in a debut season with the RSC.
Ben Jonson was making a serious point about materialism, corruption and con-merchants, and there is a sense in which the satire loses some of its bite amidst the comedic delivery under Trevor Nunn’s direction. There are clear messages in the work for a modern audience that could possibly have been given a little more weight in a modernist production, but very fine performances and ensemble timing score a hit nonetheless.
Henry Goodman, Annette McLaughlin, Orion Lee, Matthew Kelly and Geoffrey Freshwater - Photo (c) Manuel Harlan / RSC

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