Volpone

Ben Jonson’s Volpone (Italian for “sly fox”) dates from 1606, a wry comedy about corruption and greed. It is being performed in the Swan at Stratford as part of the Venetian season: the title character is a childless Venetian nobleman who feigns illness in order to dupe his fellows; by convincing Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino that they have each been made his heir, he tricks them into showering him with gifts and money.

Trevor Nunn’s production updates the action to the modern day: Volpone lies in a hospital bed, while an electronic banner overhead displays, alternately, his medical details and up-to-date stock prices (clever set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis. He disguises himself as a sick man, convincing his neighbours of his illness in an almost farcical manner. As the title character, Henry Goodman is simply superb, radiating charismatic wickedness with such glee that you almost want him to succeed in his ruse. In the scene where Volpone disguises himself as a medicine seller, his patter is perfect, worth the ticket price alone. He can be chilling, too, as in the scene in which he attempts to commit rape, which is particularly disturbing.

Goodman is ably supported by a strong ensemble cast. Orion Lee is an actor new to me, but I was impressed by his portrayal of Volpone’s devious and menacing servant Mosca. Miles Richardson, Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly were also convincing as Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino, the three men Volpone attempts to trick.

Modern textual updates by Ranjit Bolt keep the piece relevant, though even without them it would surely still work, full of sharp wit and clever humour. Nunn’s productions can be long and ponderous, but that is not the case here: the time flies by. I would be interested to see a more traditional version of this play, but the twenty-first century update certainly works well.

 

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