Volpone might have been billed, alongside The Merchant of Venice and Othello, as part of the RSC’s Venetian season. But although Ben Jonson set his 1606 satirical comedy in Venice, he was no doubt intending to confront his audiences in London, Oxford and Cambridge with their own moral shortcomings. Trevor Nunn, back in the Swan, the theatre he founded in 1986 during his period as artistic director of the RSC, makes the connection easy for modern audiences: Volpone and the others look very much like us, and Venice has been airbrushed out of the picture.
Other directors have chosen to make literal the caricatures of the old fox Volpone, his gadfly servant Mosca and the three would-be heirs with names suggesting birds of prey – Voltore, the vulture, Corbaccio, the raven, and Corvino, the carrion crow. Tyrone Guthrie’s production in 1968 even featured furs and feathers; most at least fit Volpone with a red beard and wig. Nunn eschews all that; instead, the psychology of the conman and that of his all-too-willing victims is mined to great effect. Self-love leads to self-delusion for both parties. And in the age of selfies and YouTube that is made instantly manifest.
At the centre of it all is a cracking performance by Henry Goodman (whose Shylock in Nunn’s 1999 Merchant is still unsurpassed) as Volpone, gleefully delighting in role-play. He transforms himself in seconds, with the help of a wispy wig, some phlegmy dribble and a vacant expression into a “dying” patient. His cod-Italian mountebank and East End policeman are delivered with relish, but he doesn’t lose sight of the old fox’s viciousness, especially in the near-rape of Corvino’s innocent wife Celia. Orion Lee’s neat, contained, calculating Mosca – no sign of the darting fly here – is a perfect foil for Goodman.
Nunn has taken quite a few liberties. The respected translator of French and German texts, Ranjit Bolt, gets a credit for “script revisions”. These are most significant in the Sir and Lady Politic Would-be scenes in which the know-all Brit abroad becomes the know-all City man full of questionable schemes. Steven Pacey and Annette McLaughlin as his vain, greedy, primping wife play the pair with greedy, thoroughly enjoyable, exaggeration.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s stark and minimalist design leaps into life with projections showing market prices, hospital monitor data, displays of gold and the next gull waiting to enter the “sickroom”.
The contemporary setting no doubt reveals Jonson’s satirical intention. There are times, though, when the disjuncture between the language and mores of the original and the updating jolts. This is particularly so in the character of Corvino (Matthew Kelly). Where he might have seemed a risible commedia figure, an old man jealous of his young wife, he becomes brutal and controlling. And threatening a chastity belt is simply odd.
Punishments are meted out, but Volpone is still allowed the final speech asking for – well-deserved – applause.