I would be very surprised if you will see a more engaging and more accomplished acting performance this year than Henry Goodman’s as Volpone in Trevor Nunn’s current production of Volpone at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. From his famous opening line to the last line of the epilogue Goodman has the audience transfixed and delighted by this chameleon character. From the astute businessman to the hilarious mountebank to the sophisticated seducer, to the disguised officer, Goodman dominates both physically and vocally. Every word can be heard perfectly – no mean feat in a theatre where this is rarely the case – Â and his range of facial expressions and physical poses constantly delights.
One of the challenges of this text is when to make the characters ‘real’ and when to make them caricatures. Â Volpone is a character. Whereas the four gulls have elements of caricature in that they are simply obsessed by the prospect of riches, we believe Volpone when he says that he has more joy in the acquisition of wealth than in the wealth itself. He needs constant stimulus. When he can’t find it externally he provides it for himself, from calling for entertainment from his dwarf, Nano (John Key), his hermaphrodite Androgyno (Ankur Bahl) and his castrated clown Castrone (Julian Hoult), when he senses that he might be bored, to providing it for himself when he delights in the possibilities that the role of officer can provide him in and around the court scenes at the end.
Another challenge is trying to balance the moral patterning which is at the heart of Jonson’s satire. It is compounded by Jonson’s apparent lack of interest in developing the conflict between good and evil. Celia and Bonario need to be strong for this to work and I didn’t feel they were strong or ‘real’ enough. Andy Apollo’s Bonario is very pleasing to look at, but Nunn makes no attempt to present him as Corbaccio’s son except perhaps to suggest that he has been snooping round Volpone’s house in that he is told to hide through one exit and then appears from a different one. Celia whines and cowers, capitulating easily to her husband. Rhiannon Handy shrilly shrieks through her third role this season and her accent is so peculiar (is it meant to be cod eastern European? if so why?) that it makes it almost impossible to understand a thing she says. A real shame. She is miscast.
Nunn does much to make the play contemporary. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is modern and there is one unexpected visual delight after another. Narcissistic media celebrity Lady Politic Would-Be is followed almost everywhere by a video recorder; Volpone has installed CTV screens; his fake heartbeat in on screen for the scenes where he pretending to be at death’s door; the stock exchange is relayed to his house; Peregrine is a young twenty first century American travelling hippy. There is also a lot of clever and appropriate verbal updating and some satirical gags (such as Volpone’s Italian mountebank’s ‘your shitty’ and good shitizens’.
Another problem with the text for a modern audience comes about in the scenes where Volpone is not present. The interchanges between Sir Politic Would-Be (Steven Pacey) and Peregrine (Colin Ryan) are there to widen Jonson’s satirical canvas but they are not well integrated into the plot and these scenes are bound to drag a little, despite everything Nunn has done to update the references. The scenes are well-played, but I did wonder whether the play might have been enhanced by cutting them.
All four gulls are very well played. Miles Richardson’s Voltore is a corrupt contemporary lawyer – authoritative, confident, single-minded and, when need be at the end living off his enfeebled wits. Matthew Kelly’s Corvino is a vile hypocrite; Kelly shows that there is no end to his selfish, destructive exploitation of his wife – to him just another possession of no value. Annette McLaughlan’s Essex it girl cum celebrity Lady Politic Would-Be is a joy to listen to and watch. Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corbaccio is superb. Freshwater gives the character real development as he ages; his deafness opens up the possibilities of lots of unexpected gags and laughs; he is brilliant.
What else to say? The music is great. John Key leads the trio of weird servants in several terrific numbers, several of the rap. Goodman is brilliant in the seduction scene and shows off his wonderful singing voice splendidly. The minor characters (Celia apart) are very well played giving depth and credibility to the court scenes at the end which are so often rather an anti-climax. And there is Mosca, played by Orion Lee. I didn’t understand the characterisation, I couldn’t fathom the Bond-film-style Chinese servant idea and while it was evident that Lee was working hard I didn’t get his character’s motivation.
Still, this is a fascinating production. Maybe it was because so much of it was so good that I began to see for the first time some of the flaws in the play itself. It think it would be a mistake for any theatre lover to miss Goodman’s performance. It has been the highlight of my theatre year so far.
If you haven’t seen it yet, come to Stratford to do so. And you will have a warm welcome (as well as homemade bread, marmalade and jams) at Moss Cottage if you do.