I spent a fair amount of time in the first year of lockdown watching online versions of the plays of Shakespeare – in fact, I managed to work my way through every single one (click here). But as for his great contemporary Ben Jonson the opportunities have been rather more limited. About twenty of his plays have survived but they are less well known than the Bard’s, certainly less frequently revived and generally not an easy watch simply because of the plethora of contemporary references which have to be waded through. The most frequently seen is probably Volpone – it is certainly the only one I have come across online. This is in a version filmed at Greenwich Theatre in 2010. Committing productions to video was still pretty much in its infancy then (the NT Live project had only started in 2009 with Phèdre); it was pleasantly surprising, therefore, to find the quality of the recording was better than might have been expected.
The set appears to be a giant chessboard which, given the amount of game playing the various characters undertake, seems highly appropriate. There are also lots of dark shadows around the edges of the stage where lurks all manner of nastiness not least the grasping humans which Johnson portrays in this satire on greed and corruption. Most of them are driven by either avarice or lust – apart from the title character who is under the spell of both – which informs their decisions and reactions to the point where they become rather one dimensional and are moved about the board at the behest of Volpone and his servant the parasite Mosca. The latter manages to outmanoeuvre even his master as he orchestrates the mayhem which proves the downfall of nearly everyone.
Volpone is played by Richard Bremmer enjoying the gleeful nature of the character as he scams everyone in sight by pretending to be ill and encouraging them to jockey for position as his heir. I didn’t enjoy this performance at first as I found it rather one note but gradually came to realise that this was deliberate. Volpone is a fake and not even a very good one at that; by not being very convincing as a character feigning ill health, the production points up the extreme gullibility of everyone else. However, it’s a fine line being trod and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the performance (but then I did once see Paul Scofield play the role). Mark Hadfield makes a strong Mosca, the fixer and makes some of the more obscure Jonsonian passages sing. He too pretends a Uruah Heep like humility, but underneath is plotting away with the best of them and runs rings around all who cross his path. Hadfield gives him a rather lugubrious air (nice contrast with Bremmer’s more histrionic Volpone), but we are left in no doubt that he’s as corrupt as everyone else.
This wily servant along with the over wordy lawyer, the miserly neighbour, the suspicious husband and so on are clearly taken from the commedia dell’arte tradition and director Elizabeth Freestone points this up even further by making some use of masks and relating aspects of the show to later clowning traditions which grew out of the commedia. Unfortunately, the antics of Volpone’s other servants a castrato, a hermaphrodite and a dwarf (dwarf??) are, I feel, deeply unfunny and start to become tedious. Also from the commedia tradition is a subplot about a romantic entanglement – seen it all before. And in a sub-sub plot, Jonson takes some potshots at the British abroad in the ridiculous figures of Sir Politic and Lady Would be (James Wallace and Brigid Zengeni). Apart from one good sight gag about sunburn I could have done without these two either; it didn’t help that the former’s scenes were staged very statically and were very wordy… oh apart from when he dresses up as a turtle. This is in Jonson’s original but in the name of all that’s holy, why? I certainly didn’t find any fun in it.
The production was all a bit too inconsistently variable and probably a bit too overly reverential of the text which needed some (more?) judicious pruning; at over 2.5 hours it rather outstayed its welcome. I was also somewhat surprised to see missed cues and lines being fluffed – at least it was a genuine untampered with recording, I suppose. I’m sure it would all have been rather more fun and pointed on stage but in the end I found it as annoyingly tedious as the playwright’s current political namesake.
Volpone is available as one of Greenwich Theatre’s “Flashback Friday” videos on You Tube – click here
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)