Monday, 24 August 2015

Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The current RSC production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the Swan Theatre must rank as one of their slickest, funniest and most glorious productions yet. It has certainly been my highlight of the year.

First, the plot. The eponymous anti-hero, Volpone (The Fox), has a lot in common with Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Both are charismatic and seemingly amoral individuals with a covetous love of wealth. But both have passions which are ultimately more powerful than their greed. Where Barabas had a pride which when offended drove him to the most horrible acts of revenge, Volpone’s early and enduring flaw is a need to use the greed of other wealthy men to con them out of their possessions. As the victims of his plots are themselves so unappealing, the audience’s sympathies cannot help but side with the flashy and witty Volpone. The plot owes much to popular stories about wily foxes which lay down in fields pretending to be dead. When a bird comes to feast on the corpse, the fox springs into action and banquets on the carrion bird instead. In Volpone, the wealthy fox pretends to be
older, decrepit and close to death. His fellow grandees see an opportunity to inherit the wealth of the childless Volpone and attempt to buy his affection (and a place in his will) with expensive gifts. It is clear that more than greed motivates Volpone: he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth than in the glad possession’. What he really enjoys is conning his ‘friends’, the lawyer Voltore (the Vulture) and the merchants Corvino and Corbaccio (ravens).

All is going well and Volpone decides to take his plan to the next level: his parasite Mosca encourages Corbaccio with a scheme to guarantee a place in Volpone’s will. If Corbaccio alters his will to leave his estate to Volpone, despite having a son of his own, then the dying Volpone will surely make Corbaccio his heir out of gratitude. The flaw in Corbaccio’s thinking is that Volpone is actually in the prime of life and it is Corbaccio who is the doddering old codger. The plan is working well until Mosca lets slip to Volpone that the young wife of Corvino is exceedingly beautiful. After going out in disguise and seeing her for himself, Volpone develops a passion of another sort. He and Mosca fashion another scheme so that Volpone can have his way with Celia (Rhiannon Handy). Mosca lets Corvino know that Volpone’s doctors have suggested that sleeping with a young maiden would aid his recovery and that by lending Volpone  his wife, Corvino will guarantee himself a place in Volpone’s will. Since Volpone is apparently a drooling, near-comatose invalid, what could be the harm? Unfortunately for Volpone, his two clever schemes become tangled and things begin to go awry…

The stage setting is a real treat. Volpone’s house is like a modern art gallery, all shiny whiteness with his wealth displayed in stylish glass cases. Volpone has a remote control on which he can turn on his CCTV when guests arrive at his door, as well as a large digital stock market ticker surmounting the set. The whole effect is that of a rich and discerning connoisseur. Unlike recent RSC productions, in which the costumes have been somewhat disappointing, in this case the stylish suits of the greedy and the outlandish attire of Volpone’s troupe of freaks are a perfect accompaniment to the elegant set and lively story. Volpone’s regular changes of appearance from powerful grandee to dribbling wreck are impressive, if somewhat revolting up close (think streams of bilious snot hanging off an old man’s chin).

Volpone’s four greedy victims are well-cast. Miles Richardson as Voltore makes an excellent posh but amoral lawyer, Matthew Kelly as Corvino is again excellent (following his turn as a lusty friar in the Jew of Malta) as a buffoonish no-nonsense northern businessman, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corbaccio is likewise again excellent (following his turn as Kelly’s equally slimy and hypocritical brother friar in the Jew of Malta) and Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic Would-Be plays an excellent tartish gold-digger from a slightly lower societal echelon (Eastenders-esque). Orion Lee’s Mosca is a model of understated, servile cunning, manipulating his social superiors with élan. Volpone’s also gets his kicks from the entertainment provided by
his three freaks, Androgyno the hermaphrodite (Ankur Bahl), Nano the dwarf (Jon Key) and Castrone the eunuch (Julian Hoult). The three oddballs are perfectly cast, exuberantly well-acted and, more than anything else, fun. I suspect there were more than a few women in the audience jealous of Androgyno’s graceful deportment as he sashayed confidently across the stage in his high, high heels. Volpone is a sybarite, who needs ever wilder pleasures and takes ever greater risks to maintain his interest in life; but the results and accoutrements of his empty moral turpitude are a joy to behold!

More than anything, this play gives licence to its leading actor to showcase his talents – and Henry Goodman is clearly very, very talented. The shifts from ailing invalid to wily Machiavel are dazzling enough as displays of raw panache, but then he takes the RSC to another place entirely in the balcony scene. Disguised as a charismatic street vendor, adopting a thick Italian accent and hawking his ‘miracle’ juice (‘To buy or not to buy, that is the question…’), Volpone becomes a different kind of conman entirely, and the results are genuinely hilarious. There was even a touch of improvisation when Volpone interacted with an audience member and received an unexpected answer. In the attempted seduction scene, Volpone shifts gear again and becomes an energetic, if unsuccessful, singing Lothario. Again, credit should be given for the set design: the neon lights, ‘sexy’ music and the bed rising through the floor are like something from a teenage boy’s fantasy circa. 1975. Cheesy, but a perfect match for Volpone’s animated self-confidence. Eventually, Volpone’s tragic flaws are his need to screw over the other characters and his overweening self-confidence. Like the Jew of Malta’s Barabas, Volpone cannot quit while he’s ahead and he tries one more jape out of ‘sheer wantonness’. But Goodman makes what is really an unlikely act of hubris look entirely natural.

This production was marketed as an analogy for the greed and corruption that is so often blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. This connection is strained, partly because Volpone is so clearly more interested in the human aspects of wealth acquisition (getting one over on his rivals) rather than any City slicker hunger for big bonuses. But partly it just wouldn’t work because the play is not a simplistic morality tale about the dangers of corporate greed. Luckily, the marketing doesn’t match the reality and there is no sustained attempt to stress the topicality of Volpone vis-à-vis today’s greedy bankers. Besides the stock market tracker in his living room, Volpone’s only business dealings are the con tricks he inflicts on his friends. Volpone might be a bit of a Bernie Madoff, but Madoff was really a sideshow to the main event. The other small flaw in the production is there in the original. There is a parallel plot involving Sir Politick Would-be which has almost nothing to do with the main story concerning Volpone and it looks like an entirely superfluous effort to add some buffoonish humour to a play that really doesn’t need it.

This is a high-spirited play, joyful and boisterous, but it is also refined. The balance that has been struck between these two aspects should probably not be a surprise from a director as renowned as Trevor Nunn and an actor as versatile as Henry Goodman. Go and watch it.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Coming Soon... AMPRAW 2015

And now for something completely different...

Call for Papers
Fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World
14th-15th December 2015
University of Nottingham
Abstracts deadline: 31st August 2015
It is with great pleasure that we announce the fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World. AMPRAW 2015 will be a two-day conference aiming to provide both UK and international postgraduate students from all disciplines with the opportunity to present their research to the growing academic community focusing on classical reception.

This year's conference will be held from Monday 14th to Tuesday 15th December 2015 at the University of Nottingham.

We will build on the successful trend of recent AMPRAWs, and this year the focus will be “Orthodoxy and Dissent”. This theme relates to many aspects of reception studies, and will further widen the scope of AMPRAW into the areas of material and visual culture, translation studies, and political thought.

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers (with a subsequent 10 minute discussion) that engage with the following key questions:

       Has there been and is there still an orthodox view(s) of the ancient world?
       How have dissenters challenged this picture?
       Is dissent against orthodoxy essential for art?
       Do issues of orthodoxy and dissent help to highlight or shroud issues of contemporary discourse?
       In what ways have the ancient world and its artefacts been used to reinforce or challenge authority?
       Is there an ‘orthodox’ way of teaching Classics today?

Thus far, a wide range of abstracts have been submitted, testament to the breadth of opportunity that classical reception offers. We would encourage abstracts focusing on any aspect of the ancient world and how it has been received in any context since.

In addition to this year's panels, AMPRAW 2015 will feature a keynote lecture, and practitioner-led workshops from visiting speakers. Our exciting agenda already includes a keynote speech by Dr. Gideon Nisbet, whose latest work has focussed on reception of epigram (including a translation of Martial), and a workshop by Clare Pollard, the poet who recently published a contemporary verse translation of Ovid’s ‘Heroides’. Further details and panel topics are to follow in due course.

Evening entertainment is to be arranged for Monday 14th December, and will be in conjunction with the Centre for Ancient Drama and its Reception (CADRE). Bursaries may be available to conference-goers and speakers alike, thanks to generous funding offered to us. Confirmation and details on how to apply for this will follow in due course.

Please send your title and a 200-300 word abstract (including your name, affiliation and level of study) to, by the 31st August 2015.

For up-to-date conference news and further details, please visit our website: and get involved on twitter @AMPRAW2015.

We look forward to receiving your abstracts!
The AMPRAW 2015 Organising Committee