Volpone – July 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Ben Jonson, with script revisions by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd July 2015

This fantastic production was a joy to watch. There was so much going on that I couldn’t take it all in first time around, so I’m already looking forward to our next viewing which will be tomorrow’s understudy run. The performances were all excellent, and apart from a couple of the accents being a little harder to tune into than the others, the dialogue was crystal clear, including some modern additions.

The set was modern, clinical and very high tech. At the start we could see a row of white panels across the back of the stage which became transparent from time to time to reveal Volpone’s treasure hoard, with various items stored in individual niches. In front of these were some frosted panels, two on each side, which could be arranged in various positions such as fully extended or bent at right angles to suggest different locations; they could also be folded back out of the way. There was no connection between the middle balconies tonight, and the balconies themselves were screened off, literally as it turned out. The sheets of grey material across the front of each were used to show various pictures, some which created the scenery and others which came from a live camera feed. Similar screens filled the areas underneath the balconies and a curved strip ran around the base of the upper balcony; these were all used to good effect as I’ll describe later.

Above the stage were two groups of strip lights. At the back, the four lights formed a V-shape pointing away from the audience, while the ones over the stage itself pointed forwards and looked like a stealth bomber: basically the same V-shape but with two extra lights forming a diamond shape at the front. The floor was white, with metal trim creating triangular and diamond tiling. Four display cases on wheeled stands stood towards the back of the stage, two on each side. I couldn’t see the items in detail, but there were inset lights in each case for viewing purposes. We sat by the left walkway, near the back.

The performance began with a bell chiming, and then the lights went down. Volpone came on in the darkness wearing white pyjamas and a dark blue dressing gown. He greeted the new day warmly before expressing his devotion to an even greater beauty than the morning sun – gold. During this paean of praise, he took up a gold bar to kiss it, before laying it lovingly on a handkerchief spread on the ground by his servant, Mosca. Mosca then wheeled on a white leather executive chair – almost all of the furniture was on wheels – and served Volpone his morning coffee. There was some laughter as Volpone used a remote control to start up the ticker tape feed which ran along the curved screen: the entry for VLP had been highlighted and the share price was going up.

I was finding Mosca’s dialogue a little harder to follow at this point, as Orion Lee was playing the part with a Chinese accent. He was also wearing a Chinese-style suit with a mandarin collar, and his movements throughout suggested someone with martial arts training; his general fluidity and his arm movements when demonstrating an arrow’s flight, for example. It didn’t take too long for me to tune in, however, and his performance was a tremendous match for Henry Goodman as Volpone.

Volpone wanted some entertainment – at least he knew how to enjoy his wealth – so he summoned his ‘crew’, comprising a eunuch, a hermaphrodite and a dwarf. The eunuch was a chunky chap, who wore a large pair of white dungarees and a white shock wig. The hermaphrodite was tall, slender and dark, with a fine pair of legs which were fully on display, given that he/she was wearing a skimpy black outfit with high-heeled black boots. Against his/her short black hairstyle, one white clump was slicked back in a duck’s tail. The dwarf, a genuinely shorter person, wore a striped T-shirt (in black and white, of course) and black trousers, and I spotted keys hanging at his waist. They sang a lively song in praise of something-or-other, and Volpone was very taken with it, praising Mosca for his invention.

Then came a knocking at the door, and with a flick of the remote the screens showed the view from the entrance camera. The new arrival came through the door at the right side of the auditorium, and while Volpone, with Mosca’s help, prepared himself for the first visitor of the day, the man was asked to wait in the lobby at the front of the stage – the lighting changed to highlight whichever section was ‘live’. A hospital bed was whisked on quickly, and Volpone put on a gown and wig before getting in to it. He had a box of makeup which he used to whiten his eyebrows and give himself sunken cheeks, and then Mosca put some drops in his eyes. There was also a drip beside the bed, and it wasn’t hard to see how Volpone had fooled so many people into believing he was at death’s door. With another flick of the remote, the screens at the side showed various health monitor images – blood pressure, etc. – while the curved screen gave a heart monitor readout which moved across and scrolled back round again. This was almost too distracting, but the performances were so good that I found it easy to refocus on the action again.

The first visitor was Voltore (Miles Richardson), dressed in a pinstripe suit and carrying an older style of briefcase. Mosca went into the routine with him, assuring Voltore that Volpone had already made his will and that Voltore was his only heir. The gift of a large gold plate was readily accepted, and Volpone managed to get in a few grins of delight while his visitor was there, hiding them behind the plate on occasion.

The next visitor arrived before the first had left; reassuring Voltore that he was only working for him, Mosca had him shown out the back way while Corbaccio (Geoffrey Freshwater) was allowed in at the front. The bed was moved to a different angle, and the patter was much the same although Corbaccio was very deaf and misheard everything, which allowed for even more humour. This time Corbaccio was told that Volpone hadn’t made his will, so to encourage him to make one in Corbaccio’s favour, Mosca persuaded Corbaccio to make his own will in Volpone’s favour, thereby disinheriting his own son, but showing such devotion that Volpone would naturally reciprocate. Corbaccio was very grateful, thinking that Volpone would die first and create a bigger estate for his son. His gift was a bar of gold, also very welcome to the invalid.

The third visitor was Corvino (Matthew Kelly). He was told that Volpone was at death’s door, sure to die sometime soon, and the only name on his lips was that of Signior Corvino. Obligingly, the invalid croaked “Signior Corvino, Signior Corvino” a couple of times to back up Mosca’s story. Corvino was disappointed that his gift of an orient pearl would be wasted, but Mosca thought there might just be enough awareness left for Volpone to register his presence, and that precious item was soon in the con man’s clutches as well. Mosca informed Corvino that he, Mosca, had used Volpone’s situation to pretend that he was naming Corvino his heir, and told that gentleman that the estate would all be his. Not only was Corvino delighted, he even joined Mosca in insulting Volpone in the mistaken belief that he couldn’t hear a word.

Corvino left, and although there was another knocking at the door – a woman this time – Volpone decided that he’d done enough ‘work’ for the day. As he was cleaning himself up, Mosca mentioned Corvino’s wife, apparently a great beauty, and Volpone determined to see her for himself, regardless of how difficult that would be; Corvino kept her hidden away as much as possible.

The next scene change was done quickly, with the bed being wheeled off, the panels folded back and some tables and chairs brought on. There were pictures and adverts on the screens, and we appeared to be at an airport café.  Four men sat round a table near the back, while the forward table, about halfway down the thrust, was occupied by one man who was soon joined by a backpacker. The first man was Sir Politic Would-Be, a smartly-dressed Englishman, and while I wasn’t sure initially where the backpacker came from, he turned out to be an American. When he discovered that Sir Politic was an idiot, he latched on to him for entertainment value, asking for his help in understanding the ways of the locals.

The text was significantly updated here, with Sir Politic making a reference to his “followers” and indicating his iPad, and mentioning crop circles and other modern events, although he phrased them all in an old-fashioned way. I didn’t follow all of this at the time, and as there’s no specific text for this production I can’t check the details. Nor did I hear the young man’s name; I wondered at first if he was Corbaccio’s son whom his father intended to disinherit and it did take me some time to tune into his accent, so although I got the basic gist of the scene, I hope to get much more detail from a second viewing. The text (and cast list) make it clear that the backpacker is called Peregrine, so I’ll use that name for convenience in these notes.

Mosca and Volpone’s crew came on with a trolley and a box of tricks, so Peregrine and Sir Politic decided to stay and see what was happening. The crew set up a platform, a loudspeaker and a purple box, so that Volpone could perform as a well-known mountebank, Scoto of Mantua (or Italy, I think they changed it to). Volpone came on in a dark purple suit, matching hat and goatee beard, and went into a fabulous comedy routine to gather a crowd and sell his wares. Or at least, that’s what it was meant to look like. He was actually trying to get Corvino’s wife to look out of her window so he could see her beauty, and after a while, she did. She must have had a box to stand on, as she was able to look over the screen.

But first we were treated to Scoto in full flow. With a fake Italian accent, and using a microphone, he mangled “city” into “shitty” and “public” into “pubic”, with other such variations along the way. He even mentioned the famous Shakespeare story – “to buy or not to buy” – and made a reference to “Dicky de Turd”. When this sort of thing is done well it can be hilarious, and Henry Goodman is a master of his craft. He was going to charge £80 a bottle, but of course he reduced the price to show them what a kind-hearted fellow he was, and what a bargain they were getting.

When Mrs Corvino appeared briefly at the balcony, Mosca indicated to Volpone which window to look at – he was standing right underneath it anyway – but she was only there for a few moments. The crew opened the box to reveal the bottles of medicine inside, and Volpone offered to give a free bottle of his potent medicine to anyone who would throw down their handkerchief. Mrs Corvino came back on to the balcony at just the right moment, and was the first to claim her free gift by throwing her hanky onto the stage. Volpone went into raptures about the special powder he was giving her, singing an adapted version of O Sole Mio in the process.

The fun and jollity soon ended when Corvino came back home and found that his wife had been in the public eye for so long. He chased everyone off, and Volpone and his crew were quick to pack up and leave. With the stage cleared, Volpone and Mosca paused to talk about Mrs Corvino, or Celia as I’ll refer to her now. Volpone was smitten, and burning to get into her knickers, though he didn’t put it so crudely, so Mosca promised, as a dutiful servant, to bring it about.

The next scene was very unpleasant. With only a chair in the middle of the stage, Corvino confronted his wife about her behaviour. His jealousy had gone beyond the delusional stage and he was totally mad. He threatened to put her in a chastity belt – taking it out of his briefcase to show her – then told her he would stop her from going near the window and would make her walk everywhere backwards. It was an ugly sight to see, but they carried the darkness off well and kept me involved. Fortunately, Mosca arrived to tell Corvino of Volpone’s miraculous recovery and added that all the doctors were convinced that the one thing that would revive him fully would be to lie next to a beautiful young woman. There was a great danger in this, because someone else might provide such a woman first and receive the bounty of Volpone’s gratitude. It took some nudging, but Corvino finally came up with the solution: his wife would do it! Mosca was delighted, and told Corvino to wait till he sent for them. Corvino called for his wife, who dutifully came on backwards, and this time he behaved nicely towards her, or as nicely as someone like him could be. He told her to dress in her finery as they were going to dine with Volpone. Bastard.

Mosca was so delighted with the success of his artful trick that he came skipping on to the stage to tell us how superior the often-despised ‘parasite’ was. He mentioned their social dexterity – “and change a visor swifter than a thought” – and then moved his hand quickly across his face several times, producing a completely different expression each time; it was a wonderful illustration of the line.

Carbaccio’s son Bonario arrived, listening to his iPod; Mosca tried to engage him in conversation but Bonario was having none of it. He clearly knew what sort of man Mosca was, and told him to his face, but Mosca played on his charitable nature by making out that he was driven to this sort of service out of necessity; that, and a few tears, were enough to get Bonario on-side. Mosca then sprang the news that Corbaccio intended to disinherit him, his own son, in favour of Volpone, and suggested that Bonario go with him to Volpone’s house to listen in on the transaction.

They left together, and the action moved to Volpone’s house where all his treasure was on show. Volpone was waiting impatiently for Mosca to return and tell him of the fair Celia. To pass the time, he instructed his crew to entertain him, but they’d no sooner started a song than they were interrupted by someone knocking at the door. The entrance camera showed it was the same woman as earlier, Lady Politic Would-Be, come to give some support to the long-suffering invalid. Volpone was concerned that he would, indeed, have to suffer her for a long time, and we soon learned just how tedious she could be.

She was dressed in an elegant, close-fitting dress with long blonde extensions and plenty of bling. A cameraman followed her around, and we could see the pictures he was filming on the screens as she waited in the vestibule at the front of the stage. She was a right madam, always fussing about something or other and blaming the servants for not doing their jobs properly. First it was her hair, then her dress – a total bitch. Eventually she went in to see Volpone, who had arranged himself in a chair; the cameraman was not allowed in.

To make up for that, she took a selfie with Volpone – the picture sprang up on the side screens almost immediately. She took out her iPad and began scrolling through as she talked about possible cures for his ailments, and again when referring to the different Greek philosophers. It was good fun to see Volpone hoist with his own petard; having feigned illness, he had to put up with her prattling on about how best to help him. That’s when she wasn’t singing, of course. Every time he tried to head her off at the pass, she simply went along with it and began talking about a new subject.

Just when all seemed lost, and Volpone was at risk of actually becoming ill, Mosca arrived to save his master once again. Knowing the Lady’s jealousy of her husband, Mosca pretended he had seen Sir Politic boating on a lake with a harlot: if they could have bottled that cure, they’d have made a fortune. She was off in a trice, only returning briefly to check where Mosca had seen her husband, and Mosca was then free to tell Volpone that his date with Celia had been arranged.

Before that, though, there was the little matter of Corbaccio’s will. The son arrived first, and was sent to wait in some off stage nook for his father who was due anytime. Then the problems started, as the next to arrive were Corvino and Celia. Mosca was annoyed with him for not waiting till he was summoned, but that’s the problem with encouraging people to be greedy – they get impatient and want it all now. They were told to wait in the lobby, and while Mosca asked Bonario to move into a gallery where he could wait for his father, Corvino told his wife what he wanted her to do. Then, as Volpone was being set up in his bed again, Corvino did his best to persuade Celia that her lying with Volpone would not be a sin, and that he wanted her to do it – quite a change from his earlier stance. She was understandably reluctant to do any such thing, but was dragged in to see Volpone by her husband.

To allow Volpone time to seduce the unhappy Celia, Mosca suggested to Corvino that she was only acting up out of bashfulness, not liking to do such a thing in front of her husband. They left, and almost immediately Volpone was out of bed and propositioning Celia in a much more active way. One click of the remote control locked the doors. Another click, and a large round bed came up through the floor, covered in purple silk. A third click, and sexy music started playing. Volpone did some dancing – he’s a nifty mover that Henry Goodman – and despite her resistance, Celia found herself lying on the bed, one ankle chained to the headboard.

Volpone tried to win her over by showing her a string of pearls, a tiara and a ring, but she wasn’t interested in such ephemeral stuff. In the end, Volpone decided he would just rape her, but Bonario intervened, took a knife from one of the cabinets, freed her and attacked Volpone before fleeing with Celia. Mosca tried to intervene, but Bonario cut him as he went past. Volpone was aghast: the game was up!

And so was the first half, as that was where they took the interval. Dramatic, wasn’t it? The set was tidied up a bit, with the round bed being removed, but otherwise it stayed the same. The second half began a few moments after the first had ended, with Volpone and Mosca commiserating with each other, and worried that they might be arrested. Almost immediately, someone knocked on the door, but it was only Corbaccio, come to show Volpone his devotion by making him his heir. Mosca made good use of his head wound by telling Corbaccio of his son’s attack, and claiming that Bonario had threatened to kill both Corbaccio and Volpone. This reinforced Corbaccio’s decision to disinherit his son, and although Mosca claimed that Volpone would last a bit longer, Corbaccio was still satisfied that he would shortly inherit Volpone’s wealth.

He had been followed in by Voltore, who overheard some of this and became suspiscious of Mosca’s intentions. Again, Mosca spun the facts into a convenient story – he had persuaded Corbaccio to leave everything to Volpone and then told his son about the new will hoping that the hot-headed young man would kill the father and thereby lose his own inheritance. Voltore lapped it up, and was very willing to help out when Mosca added another twist: he claimed that Bonario had forced Celia to accuse Volpone of rape, to discredit him and regain his own inheritance. Voltore told Mosca he would sort it out, and wheeled Corbaccio off with him as he left.

With these plots thickening nicely, the stage was cleared again and tall tables brought on for our next meeting with Sir Politic and Peregrine, in a bar. There were several men at another table at the back, similar to the previous scene, but I found it easier to follow the dialogue this time, and enjoyed hearing Sir Politic explain some of his silly ideas, e.g. only patriots should be allowed to carry pens (this replaced the tinderboxes in the original text). Sir Politic’s diary entries were good too; although I’ve forgotten most of the details they were suitably banal.

This scene was suddenly crashed by the arrival of Lady Politic, her entourage plus cameraman and Volpone’s crew. Pictures of the action appeared on the screens again, which added to the fun as Lady Politic accosted Peregrine, assuming him to be the harlot mentioned by Mosca. Since Peregrine had short dreadlocks, it wasn’t as far–fetched as it might sound, but if Lady Politic had actually been able to rip his clothes off, she would have had a nasty surprise. As it was, she was being filmed by the other men in the bar, so although she told the cameraman to stop filming, there was still a risk of unfavourable social media coverage. Fortunately Mosca came in to inform her that the woman in question had been apprehended, and after checking Peregrine’s lunchbox, Lady Politic apologised so profusely that she effectively told Peregrine to have her as often as he wanted.

The next scene involved the three gulls on stage together, with Mosca moving between them to assure each that he was the only heir. In effect they were all working together in some plot which Mosca had devised, but the details weren’t clear at this point.

Following this meeting of conspirators, the action moved to the courtroom and the set became a little more complicated. There were two judges in red robes sitting by the front walkways, one on each side. Bonario and Celia sat together back left, while a third red-robed judge sat slightly raised centre back. A clerk sat at a table in front of the third judge, and Bonario’s accusers – basically the three gulls – sat on the right hand side. Two lecterns stood forward of the clerk’s desk to the left and right. This arrangement caused a little blocking, but it wasn’t a significant problem, especially as we had screens at the sides and back showing us images live from the courtroom; mostly these were pictures of the judges, but we occasionally glimpsed some of the other characters.

The judges were discussing the case at the start of the scene, and despite Mosca’s insistence that Volpone was too ill to come, sent the guard to fetch him. While they waited for Volpone to arrive, Voltore began the case against Bonario and Celia, accusing them of adultery. Corbaccio was called to give evidence, but due to his deafness he wasn’t able to contribute anything useful, while Corvino got so worked up when testifying against his wife that the clerk almost broke his gavel trying to get him to shut up. With all of this going on, it’s no surprise that Celia fainted, right in the middle of the stage.

Mosca then gave evidence, and asserted that Celia had been taken with another man, bringing Lady Politic Would-Be into court to testify that she saw Celia with her husband. She confirmed the story, but was distracted by realising that there were cameras around the place, and tried to position herself so that she would be on the screens. Volpone was wheeled on as the invalid, and this time there was blood dripping from the side of this mouth. As he was wheeled around the court by Voltore, his image came on the screens, and the court was finally swayed into believing the false story; Bonario and Celia were led away to prison.

Back at Volpone’s house, he was now out of disguise, but worried that he was actually getting ill. He hadn’t been able to stop his hand shaking, and to regain his equanimity he took a few glasses of wine and a couple of snorts of something, presumably cocaine. That perked him up a bit, but he was still nervy, and sent his crew out to tell everyone that Volpone had died. Anticipating that this would bring the gulls running to claim their imaginary inheritance, he instructed Mosca to pretend that he was the sole heir instead of one of them; meanwhile Volpone himself would watch from behind a screen to savour their disappointment. So Mosca dressed himself in an academic gown while Volpone placed a hospital screen to one side with a table behind it to make it easier for him to hear what was going on.

Voltore beat the others to it, Corbaccio came second (in a wheelchair) followed by Corvino and Lady Politic. Mosca sat at the table, studying papers and shaking his head over the amount of work he had to do now he was fabulously wealthy. On the screens at the side were pictures of a cross with flowers round it, and organ music played in the background.

Mosca gradually told each man that he, Mosca, had scooped the lot in Volpone’s will, and although Corbaccio took  the longest time to realise what was going on, even he finally got the message. Volpone popped his head up now and again to comment on the situation, and after they had all left – Voltore was the last to go – planned with Mosca to resurrect himself.

We made another quick visit to the subplot after that. Peregrine, now disguised in a grey suit and large Stetson, paid a visit to Sir Politic to inform him that the backpacker he had met was actually a spy, and that men were now coming to arrest Sir Politic and search his study for incriminating papers. Sir Politic was terrified, but rejected Peregrine’s suggestion that he hide in a laundry basket. Instead he decided to put on his wife’s clothes – some of his wife’s carrier bags had been conveniently left on the stage for just such an occasion – and went off to dress himself. Peregrine’s confederates came on with guns, shouting for Sir Politic, and soon he came out looking remarkably different. The long blond wig was fine, the slinky dress not too bad, but the beard was a bit of a giveaway. And he really shouldn’t have attempted the high heels. Peregrine revealed the trick, the men took pictures and Sir Politic finally limped off, sadder and possibly no wiser, with one shoe in his hand and the other still on his foot.

To give his master the best chance of enjoying the reactions to his miraculous revival, Mosca had arranged for Volpone to be disguised as one of the officers of the court. Volpone came on to show off his uniform then left to check out the latest news, and in his absence Mosca told the crew to go out and play, but made sure he got the keys from the dwarf before they left. They were reluctant to go, but did as they were told and then Mosca made it clear to us that he intended to use this opportunity to extort money from Volpone for himself.

Volpone met the three gulls at the stock exchange, and rubbed salt in their wounds by congratulating them on their good fortune, reminding them of what they had expected to receive and didn’t get. Back in the court, Volpone was now acting as one of the officers, and when Voltore began to change his story and confess what had actually happened, Volpone decided it was time to leave. The clerk was sent to fetch Mosca, the “parasite”, and when Volpone came back on, the others froze while he stood in the middle of the stage to speak to us. He wasn’t in a spotlight as such, but they did highlight that area of the stage. He berated himself for going too far with his deceptions, and knew that he needed Mosca’s help to sort this problem out, but then his crew arrived and told him that Mosca had his keys. Volpone realised what had happened, and sent them to find Mosca and bring him to the court.

We returned to the court by the simple process of the action unfreezing. The place was in confusion as everyone tried to talk at once, accusing, denying, screaming insults etc. When Volpone came back in, he took Voltore to one side and explained that Volpone was still alive, and that Voltore was indeed the only heir. Now Voltore was keen to go back to his original lie, so Volpone told him to act possessed. Voltore fell to the floor, twitching and calling out, with Volpone adding some commentary as if he could see the devil leaving Voltore’s body. Soon he was recovered enough to get up, dazed and unsure of where he was (poor thing), and the lie was still on. Voltore denied the ‘truth’ of the papers he’d given the judges detailing the plot to discredit Bonario, and also told the court that Volpone was alive. When Mosca came on, everyone was very keen to hear what he had to say.

He stood at the left lectern, and although Volpone whispered to him beforehand, Mosca maintained that his master Volpone was indeed dead. Volpone tried to bargain with him, but his initial refusal to give Mosca anything riled the man, and now his former servant demanded more. We never got to hear how much, because the judges were so unhappy with their ‘officer’ that they ordered him to be taken away and whipped. The only option for Volpone now was to reveal himself, and so that’s what he did, in the open court.

Once that deception was scuppered, the rest of the conspiracy was uncovered too, and the judges released Bonario and Celia. Then they turned their attention to the perpetrators. Mosca was sentenced to twenty years, and Volpone not only had his wealth confiscated, but was consigned to a prison cell to live out his days until he was as lame and sick as he’d pretended to be. Voltore was disbarred, Corbaccio’s estate was given to his son and he was sent to a monastery, while Corvino was told to send his wife back home with her dowry, effectively a single woman. This delighted Celia, who kissed Bonario, and then the two of them ran off together. The main judge then told the audience to study their own faults, and that was the end of the play.

Apart from the epilogue, that is. It was a short one – six lines – and very nicely done by Volpone himself. We applauded heartily and left the theatre very happy, not to mention looking forward to seeing this again.

This is a pretty sketchy description of what went on; there was a lot more business and they created a good deal of humour from their expressions and their delivery of the lines, whether original or updated. I’ve taken the names from the cast list and the original text, and I may have got one or two things wrong, because the script has a good many changes from the original; I’ll try to put them right after we see it again.

There were one or two issues: for example, I wasn’t sure what accent Celia was using. Eventually I decided it was Middle European, suggesting that she was one of those mail order brides, bought by Corvino and treated no better than a slave. That would explain a lot, but it did make her lines hard to hear for most of the play. The Sir Politic sub plot seemed disconnected to the rest of the play for most of the time, although it did allow Henry Goodman and Orion Lee to take a breather every so often as well as providing some extra fun. On the whole, though, this was a very good production where the updating worked very well to make the characters clearer, and we’re very glad that we’ve already booked for another visit.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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